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An Arrow's Bitter Flight

Chapter Text

1 – Elissa

Deep breath in…

             Elissa aimed her bow at the wooden target in Cousland Castle’s Armoury. Nocking an arrow against the bow, she pulled the string back, the muscles in her arms tightening.

             Now, breathe out and release…

             She let the arrow fly from her bow towards the target. It thudded into the wood a few inches off the bullseye. Her lips pursed in frustration. Perhaps it’s this stupid dress. She wore an uncomfortable, lilac, high-born dress given to her by her mother—well, more like forced onto her. Elissa could not go around in her casual dresses that were loose and allowed easy manoeuvrability. No, the Couslands had important guests coming, and she needed to look the part of Bryce Cousland’s daughter when the Howes arrived, which included wearing a dress that felt as though she were trapped in a constant bear hug.

             She bent over to pick up another arrow from a quiver propped up against an armour stand behind her, her hair falling into her eyes. Long and wavy, it fell over her shoulders and down her back. She ran a hand through her hair to keep it back from her face, and kicked the hem of her dress out of the way in annoyance as she almost tripped over it for the fourth time that day. She let slip a grunt and scooped up another arrow, taking aim again. The arrow flew across the room, again only inches away from the bullseye. Elissa threw her head back in frustration.

             “Perhaps you should leave the archery to someone else,” said a deep, gruff voice from behind her.

             Elissa whirled round to see a young man in the doorway, leaning against the frame. He had flat, shoulder-length brown hair that parted either side of his face like curtains. Stubble lined his sharp, pale jaw, and his eyes shone silver like the blades in the armoury. “Nate,” she said with a little gasp of surprise. “When did you get here?”

             “A few minutes ago,” he said, stepping into the room. He wore a formal outfit: a nobleman’s shirt, trousers, and boots. By the looks of it, he did not seem that eager to be dressed in formal attire either, as he kept scratching at his arms and fixing his shirt uncomfortably. “Why they make us wear these clothes… I swear, it is just to see us suffer.”

             Elissa smiled. She put down the bow and embraced him. He smelled like wood and steel as his arms wrapped around her, giving her a gentle squeeze. “Why aren’t you with your father?” she asked as she pulled away.

             “I could ask you the same thing,” he said with a small smirk. “They are in the grand hall together at this moment…but I am sure they can wait a little longer for our presence.”

             Elissa scooped up the bow again and took aim once more, determined to get a bullseye. She breathed in deeply, pointed the arrow at the target, and released. It landed only millimetres away from the bullseye this time. “Damn! I almost had it.”

             Nathaniel shook his head at her. “You didn’t,” he said bluntly. “Here.” He moved to stand behind her, hands on her hips. “You are standing all wrong, and you’re aiming too far to the left.” He moved her into the correct position. Feet apart, body straight, parallel to the target. She took aim, and Nathaniel adjusted her grip so she aimed a little more to the right. “Now try.”

             She released the arrow, and, to Nathaniel’s satisfaction, it landed dead on the bullseye. “See,” he said, smug.

             She bit her lip to hide her smile. He hasn’t changed a bit, she thought. He had always been talented at archery, but he had also always been smug about it.

             “You were always better with daggers,” he said, taking the bow from her. “You should leave the archery up to me.” In seconds he nocked an arrow to the bow, aimed, and fired. It hit the very centre of the bullseye.

             “Perhaps you’re right,” she said, wandering over to a stand full of daggers. She picked one out from her favourites, engraved with the Cousland’s family sigil. She threw it past Nathaniel’s shoulder, causing him to lurch back in shock, and into the centre of the target’s bullseye, splitting his arrow in two. “Daggers are definitely more my thing.”

             Nathaniel laughed, a rare smile appearing on his usually solemn face. Elissa felt honoured to see it. He was not a very sociable person, or very talkative when he could help it, but Elissa and Nathaniel had known each other since they were children. Their visits to one another’s homes became rarer every year, but around him, Elissa felt she could finally relax without the pressure of being Lady Cousland on her shoulders. With him, she could be the warrior she had always wanted to be. A dual-wielding rogue with two daggers at her fingertips.

             She sighed, realising that if Nathaniel was here already, it meant she was due to appear in the grand hall. “We should probably see our fathers,” she said, quickly tidying away the practise arrows and hanging the dagger back on the rack. “It’s not a good idea to keep them waiting.”

             Nathaniel nodded, his smile dropping at the thought of going back to his father. “I hope we will have time to catch up some more later, before I go.”

             “Go?” she asked, her brows furrowing. “Aren’t you staying with your father?”

             “You know I’m a squire for Ser Rodolphe now,” he said. “I only managed to get a few days away to come here on family business before I must return to him in the Free Marches. I’ll be leaving with your brother later tonight.”

             “Oh,” was all she could say in reply. Her heart sunk a little at the thought of only seeing him for a day. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to make the most of our time together then.” He offered her his arm and she took it, allowing him to lead her through Cousland Castle towards the grand hall.

             As they neared, they heared voices inside. “I trust, then, that your troops will be here shortly?”

             “I expect they will start arriving tonight, and we can march tomorrow. I apologise for the delay, my lord. This is entirely my fault.”

             “No, No. The appearance of the darkspawn in the south has us all scrambling, doesn’t it? I only received the call from the king a few days ago, myself. I’ll send my eldest off with my men. You and I will ride tomorrow, just like the old days.”

             “True. Though we both had less grey in our hair then. And we fought Orlesians, not…monsters.”

             “Ha! At least the smell will be the same.”

             Elissa politely knocked on the door before leading the way inside, where her father, Teryn Bryce Cousland, was speaking with Nathaniel’s father, Arl Rendon Howe, by the grand fireplace at the other end of the long room lined with Cousland banners.

             “I’m sorry, pup, I didn’t see you there,” said Bryce, before his eyes looked to who had escorted her inside. “Nathaniel, good to see you again, my boy! You look older every time I see you. How are you finding the life of a squire?”

             Nathaniel walked ahead of Elissa to shake Bryce’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you too, my lord. Squiring is hard work, but I enjoy it all the same.”

             Bryce gripped him on the shoulder. “Good! I am glad to hear that.” He turned to his friend. “Howe, you remember my daughter, Elissa?”

             Rendon Howe looked her up and down with the same silver eyes as his son, who took up position beside him, hands clenched behind his back. “I see she’s become a lovely young woman,” said Rendon. “Pleased to see you again, my dear.”

             Elissa plastered a false smile on her face. There was something about Arl Howe that made her feel uneasy. He had treated Nathaniel pretty poorly when he had told his father as a boy that he wanted to be a warrior, not head of the family. Elissa had always held a grudge against him for that, though it made her thankful that her own father was not as angry when she had told him the same thing. In fact, Bryce had encouraged her rather than put her down.  He had even gifted her a set of armour and daggers to practise with. “And you, Arl Howe,” she replied.

             “My son Thomas asked after you. Perhaps I should bring him with me next time.”

             Nathaniel flinched beside him, his eyes darting away from the conversation, suddenly becoming very interested in a family shield hung on the wall.

            Elissa remembered Thomas quite well. Nathaniel’s younger brother, no doubt soon to be named heir to Rendon Howe over Nathaniel. He was very well versed in strategies and politics, the perfect heir one could say, but he was also a complete bore. The last time they had spoken, Elissa had internally prayed with all her might for The Maker to strike her where she stood so she did not have to listen to yet another lecture about Ferelden politics.

              “To what end?” Elissa asked.

             Rendon burst out laughing. “‘To what end’ she says! So glib, too. She’s just like her mother when she talks like that.”

             Bryce shook his head at her, though there was a proud smile on his old face. “See what I contend with, Howe? There is no telling my fierce girl anything these days. Maker, bless her heart.”

             “Quite talented, I’m sure,” Rendon agreed, his eyes narrowing. “One to watch.”

             Bryce turned to his daughter. “At any rate, pup, I summoned you for a reason. While your brother and I are both away, I’m leaving you in charge of the castle.”

             Elissa’s jaw almost fell open. “M-Me?” She nodded gratefully. “I’ll do my best, Father.”

             “Now, that’s what I like to hear,” he said, giving her a little pat on the arm. “Only a token force is remaining here, and you must keep peace in the region. You know what they say about the mice when the cat is away, yes?” He stepped back and gestured to the door behind him. “There is also someone you must meet. Please…show Duncan in,” he ordered a guard.

              A tall man from Rivain with long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail strolled into the room, two daggers strapped onto his back. He wore blue and silver armour, with a griffon emblazed on his metal chest plate. “It is an honour to be a guest within your hall, Teryn Cousland,” he said, his voice low and as smooth as honey.

             “Your Lordship,” Rendon Howe exclaimed, “you didn’t mention that a Grey Warden would be present.”

             “Duncan arrived just recently,” Bryce replied, “unannounced. Is there a problem?”

             Rendon awkwardly pulled down the hem of his shirt. “Of course not, but a guest of this stature demands certain protocol. I am…at a disadvantage.”

             “We rarely have the pleasure of seeing one in person, that’s true,” said Bryce. “Pup, Brother Aldous taught you who the Grey Wardens are, I hope?”

             Elissa looked to Nathaniel, and they both stared at Duncan in awe. He was the epitome of a warrior. Strong, brave, talented. A Grey Warden. Elissa had read about them in books, but had never seen a Grey Warden in person. They were fabled warriors, keeping the lands safe from darkspawn.

             “He did,” she replied, “though I learned more through the texts he provides. I know that Grey Wardens make the sacrifices no one else can for us so we can be safe from the Blight. But he said they’re a small order now with little importance these days.”

             Bryce coughed awkwardly. “I…apologise, Duncan, that Aldous has nerve, teaching my children such slanderous nonsense.”

             “I take no offence,” Duncan assured him. “They Grey Wardens are not what they once were.”

             “I will not have the Wardens spoken ill of in my household. Without them, the darkspawn would have killed us all in the first Blight. You are the only reason men still live in Thedas.” He turned back to his daughter. “Duncan is looking for recruits before joining us and his fellow Wardens in the south. I believe he’s got his eyes on Ser Gilmore.”

             “If I might me so bold,” said Duncan, “I would suggest that your daughter is also an excellent candidate.”

             Elissa’s eyes widened. “Me?”

             Beside his father, Nathaniel smiled.

             Elissa felt conflicted. Duncan thinks I’m good enough to become a Grey Warden? That was certainly an honour, as only the best warriors could become Wardens. Someone must have told him about her practice sessions, where she sparred with her father’s men with her daggers. Pride swelled in her chest, but the look of anger on her father’s face crushed any happiness she began to feel.

             Bryce stepped in front of Elissa, like a lion protecting its cub. “Honour though that might be, this is my daughter we’re talking about,” he said sternly.

             Elissa stepped forward, placing a hand on her father’s shoulder to ease him. “I’m flattered,” she told the Warden, “but I have no interest in joining your ranks.”

             “Do you hear that, Duncan?” said Bryce, refusing to step away. “My daughter is not interested. So unless you intend to invoke the Right of Conscription…”

             Duncan put his hands up in a peaceful gesture. “Have no fear. While we need as many good recruits as we can find, I’ve no intention of forcing the issue.”

             Bryce nodded, satisfied that his daughter was not being taken away, and finally stepped out from between his daughter and the Warden. “Pup, can you ensure that Duncan’s requests are seen to while I’m gone?”

             “Of course.”

             “In the meantime, find Fergus and tell him to lead the troops to Ostagar ahead of me. Now, if you will excuse us, we must discuss the battle plans in the south. Be a good lass and do as I’ve asked. We’ll talk soon.”

             “I assume you don’t need me,” Nathaniel grunted to his father, who shook his head disinterestedly in reply. He looked over at Elissa to say, I’ll see you later, before he swiftly left the room through the door Duncan had come through.

Chapter Text

2 – Elissa

Elissa strolled through Cousland Castle’s corridors towards the bedrooms, where she knew her brother, Fergus, and his family would be. I’d better speak with them before Fergus leaves, she thought. I’ll only kick myself if he leaves without saying goodbye to him.

             The castle was tall and grand, made of sturdy stone and wood. It always made her feel like an ant when she walked in amongst the tall statues and towering buildings.

             “There you are!” said a voice as they came out of a nearby room. “Your mother told me the Teryn had summoned you, so I didn’t want to interrupt.” A man with bright orange hair dressed in light armour emerged from the kitchens. “I just had to help old nan remove your hound from the kitchen larders. Turns out, he was in there to kill rats that had broken in!”

             Her loyal mabari war hound sat on the ground beside Ser Gilmore, his tongue lolling out of his mouth between two rows of dangerously sharp teeth. He was one dog you did not want to get on the bad side of, but around Elissa, his master, he was a cute little puppy. He was tall enough that Elissa didn’t have to bend down much to give him a scratch behind his ears. “Good boy,” she told him. He looked up at her with happy eyes.

             “Thank you for dealing with the situation,” she said to Ser Gilmore. “I’m sure nan would bite my head off if I was anywhere near.”

             Ser Gilmore chuckled. “Might I ask you a question, my lady?” Elissa gestured for him to continue. “I’ve heard from several people that a Grey Warden is here. Is that true?”

             “You sound quite interested,” she said, noticing his eyes had a youthful glee in them.

             “Awed more like. The reputation of the Grey Wardens as mythical warriors is unsurpassed.”

             “His name is Duncan. I’ve met him.”

             “Then…is it also true this Grey Warden was asking after me?”

             Elissa nodded. “He intends to recruit you, I believe.”

             Ser Gilmore’s face lit up with surprise. “Maker’s breath. Are you certain? Can you imagine? Me, a Grey Warden! It would be everything I’ve dreamed of!”

             Elissa beamed at the knight’s eagerness. “Why aren’t you marching with my father’s men?” she wondered. Most of the knights that lived in Highever had chosen to go with Fergus and Bryce.

             “I would, were it my choice. Your father decided I should remain with the compliment guarding the castle. I hope that’s because this Grey Warden wishes to see me.”

             “Do you know much about the order?” she asked.

             “Only what everyone hears. I never expected to actually see one. So few of them are here in Ferelden.”

             “Do you know what happens if you’re recruited?”

             Ser Gilmore lowered his voice. “I only know that once you become a Grey Warden, your old life is over. There’s no going back.”

             No wonder why Father was so defensive when Duncan suggested me as a recruit.

             “As much as I miss my family’s farm and as much as I love Highever,” Ser Gilmore continued, “I wouldn’t hesitate to join the Grey Wardens, given a chance—with your father’s blessing, of course.” He paused, studying Elissa’s face. “What if the Grey Warden tried to recruit you? Have you thought about it?”

             Elissa had thought about it. Grey Wardens were fabled warriors. They promised a life of battles and glory, doing what Elissa did best. She could escape this life of propriety. She could become the warrior she had always dreamed of. But…her family needed her at home, and duty comes before one’s own desires, as her father had taught her. If anything were to happen to Fergus, she would be next in line to inherit her father’s Teryn title. She couldn’t well do that if she were part of an order that forced her to give up her current life.

             “Father wouldn’t let me even if I wanted to,” she said.

             “He could change his mind. Grey Wardens are notorious for doing whatever is necessary to fight the darkspawn. Scribe Aldous once told me that the Grey Wardens used to burn entire villages to keep them out of darkspawn hands.

             Elissa jerked her head back in surprise. Suddenly the Grey Wardens did not sound so fantastical. “They’ll kill people to protect them?”

             Ser Gilmore shrugged. “If they have to. A few villages are a small price to pay to save the world.”

             “Well, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be recruited anyway, a Teryn’s daughter or not.”

             “Surely you jest, my lady. You’re strong, skilled, and easily the equal of men twice your age.” He smiled warmly at her. “The Grey Wardens would be fools to overlook you.”

             Elissa shook her head at him. “You are too kind, Ser Gilmore. Anyway, I must take my leave. I need to see Fergus before he goes.”

             Ser Gilmore bowed low. “My lady.”

             Elissa gestured with her hand for her Mabari to follow her. He bounded alongside her, almost reaching her hip in height. He was a strong, muscular dog who had protected her since she was a little girl. A lifelong friend who she trusted implicitly. If there’s one being in this world you can trust, it’s your pets.

             She reached a courtyard lined with Ferelden plants and flowers. Her mother’s voice echoed off the stone walls as she mingled with guests. “…and my dear Bryce brought this back from Orlais last year. The marquis who gave it to him was drunk, I understand, and mistook Bryce for the king!” She stopped as she spotted her only daughter approaching. “Ah, here is my lovely daughter. I take it by the presence of that troublesome hound of yours that the situation in the kitchen is handled?”

             “Yes, Mother,” Elissa assured her. “Ser Gilmore tells me all is well.”

             “Darling, you remember Lady Landra, Bann Laurence’s wife?” she said, gesturing to the woman beside her.

            Lady Landra smiled at her. “I think we last met at your mother’s spring salon.”

             “Of course,” said Elissa, putting on her Lady Cousland voice that she used at formal events to keep up appearances. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

             “You are too kind, dear girl. Didn’t I spend half the salon trying to convince you to marry my son?”

             A tall man with deep red hair, dressed in vibrant coloured formal wear blushed, hanging his head in embarrassment. “And made a very poor case for it, I might add.”

             “You remember my son, Dairren?” said Lady Landra. “He’s not married yet either!”

             Dairren quickly stepped in. “Don’t listen to her. It’s good to see you again, my lady. You’re looking as beautiful as ever.”

             He was a very pretty man—hard to believe he was to be her father’s second tomorrow. He looked well spoiled, with neatly combed hair, a freshly shaven face, and expensive clothes.

             “Thank you,” she replied. “It’s nice to see you too.”

             “And this,” said Lady Landra, “is my lady-in-waiting Iona. Do say something girl.”

             A small elf stood beside Dairren. “It is a great pleasure, my lady. You are as pretty as your mother describes.”

             “And she says that after seeing you whacking stuffed men in the courtyard,” said her mother, Eleanor, “and sweating like a mule!”

             “Your daughter’s prowess with a blade is most impressive,” said Dairren, staring at Elissa intently. She looked away.

             “I was quite the battle maiden myself in my day. But I think it was the softer arts that helped me land a husband.”

             “Mother,” Elissa hissed, “we don’t need to discuss that now.”

             “I think I shall rest now, my dear,” said Lady Landra. “Dairren, I will see you and Iona at supper.”

             Dairren nodded. “Perhaps we’ll retire to the study for now,” putting emphasis on the word ‘study’, as if he wanted Elissa to remember that.

             Elissa released a sigh of relief as Dairren, Iona, and Lady Landra left the courtyard.

             “Dairren is a sweet man. He would make a good husband,” said Eleanor, once they were out of earshot.

             Elissa spluttered. “Mother! You know I have no interest in finding anyone right now!”

             Eleanor smirked. “No, I think your eyes are set elsewhere for the moment.” She looked over Elissa’s shoulder at someone. Elissa turned to see Nathaniel walk past the end of the corridor.

             Heat flushed to Elissa’s cheeks, colouring them a rosy pink. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Elissa said innocently, using her hair to hide her face. “Are you staying at the castle?” she added quickly, changing the subject.

             “For a few days. Then I’ll travel with Lady Landra to her estate and keep her company for a time.” Eleanor smiled mischievously. “Your father thinks my presence here might undermine your authority.” She reached up to stroke her daughter’s face with the back of her fingers. “You’re not worried about running the castle alone, are you?”

             “A little,” Elissa admitted. “It’s a huge responsibility. But at least I won’t have you telling me off for spending more time practicing in the armoury than learning how to dance and paint,” she teased.

             Eleanor chuckled. “I love you, my darling girl.” She pulled Elissa into a tight embrace. “You know that, don’t you?”

             “I love you too,” Elissa said into her mother’s grey hair.

             “I will see you soon,” Eleanor said as she pulled away, allowing Elissa to continue on to find her brother.

             

Elissa had to pass the study on the way to the bedrooms. Dairren’s going to think I deliberately came this way, she thought. Of course, she could have gone around the long way, but she did not know how much longer her brother was going to be there for, as the sun began to set behind the castle’s tall stone walls, painting everything in an orange glow. If I walk past quickly, maybe he won’t see me. Elissa picked up the pace, almost running past the study, when a voice called her name.

             “Lady Elissa?”

             Elissa froze, her lips pursed in frustration. Damn it. She turned to see him peeking out of the study’s doorway. “Oh, Dairren. I didn’t realise you would still be here.”

             “Your castle’s study is wonderful,” he said, backing inside. Seeing no way out of this situation without coming across as rude, she grudgingly followed him inside, her Mabari close behind. Her mother would never forgive her if she upset her dearest friend’s son.

             Dairren wondered over to a wall covered in shelves of thick books. “Might I ask whose collection this is?”

             “It was my grandfather’s,” Elissa replied, “but I often come here to read.”

             “So would I,” he said, his fingers running along all the spines. “Do you have a favourite book?”

             Elissa scanned the shelves herself. There was one in particular that had less dust on than any other, and whose spine was cracked and worn from where she had read it so many times. She and Nathaniel had spent much time over the years in here when not outside in the armoury, practising their combat skills. They had read books about great warriors and heroes, and the legendary creatures they had slain. She plucked the book from the shelf and dusted off the thin grey film on its cover. “The Dragons of Tevinter, by Brother Timmious.”

             Dairren’s eyes lit up. “Good choice! Timmious’ theory on the nature of dragons and how they connect to darkspawn is quite intriguing.”

             He moved to take the book from her, his hands overlapping hers for a moment before he replaced it back on the shelf for her. She took a moment to really look at him whilst his eyes were away from her. His copper-red hair was slicked back from his baby-face. His clothes were well fitted, showing off a slim body, and his hands were slender and gentle. An odd appearance for a squire, she thought. Normally they were muscled and strong, with calloused hands from training vigorously to empress the Lord or Lady they squired for. In his back pocket was a thick, square object—a book?

             “So,” she said, “you’re going to be riding with my father tomorrow?”

             “Yes,” he answered, less enthusiastically than one would expect, “though I don’t know when. I will leave when your father does. I’ll ride as his second—a glorified squire, more or less. I’ll care for his horse and armour and such. It’s quite an honour.”

             “You find it an honour to do menial tasks?” she blurted, quickly biting her lip after realising what she had said.

             Dairren merely chuckled, however. “Unlike you, I am no child of a great house. If I can rise within the ranks of your father’s service, it is more than I could normally hope for. I’m a bit surprised that you’re not riding alongside your brother. Is that…disappointing?”

             “A little,” she admitted, “but I have important duties here to take care of.”

             “True enough. This is no small estate, like my own. If you’re interested, I shall record what I can during the battle. My writing skills may be lacking, but I hope to convey a true sense of the warrior’s experience. Writing such an important work is one of my ambitions.”

             “Will you actually fight?” she asked, wondering if Dairren had ever even lifted a blade. He did not look like the type.

             “I hope so,” he said, to her surprise. “I admit to trepidation about facing darkspawn, but I can’t imagine an opponent worthier of defeat.”

             An awkward silence fell between them, and Elissa fiddled with the sleeve of her dress. “Well,” she said eventually, “I should go. I need to find my brother before he leaves.”

             “Of course,” he said, giving her a bow. “I would not dare keep you. But, before you go, if I may ask…”

             Elissa’s brows furrowed together as he took a step towards her.

             “Might I come visit you later?” he asked.

             “Oh, of course! You can visit whenever you wish. In fact, you can bring your mother and we can have tea together—”

             “I meant, tonight,” he said, his pupils darkening. “Before I leave in the morning. I would hate to have left without…getting to know you.”

             Elissa blinked in disbelief. Her Mabari growled beside her, baring his teeth at Dairren, who instantly backed away. Elissa placed her hand on the dog’s head to calm him.

             “I-I meant n-no offence,” he stuttered, keeping an eye on the dog who continued to growl at him. “Got c-caught up in the moment. I thought…never mind what I thought. Please, forgive me.”

             “No harm done, Dairren,” Elissa assured him. “You’ve never wooed a girl before, have you?”

             Dairren shook his head.

             Elissa laughed. “Maybe next time, make sure the girl is interested in you before you ask to be intimate with them.” She headed back towards the door, her Mabari following behind her, beady eyes still locked on Dairren. “Don’t worry, I won’t mention this to anyone. Good luck with the journey tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

3 – Nathaniel

Nathaniel walked the halls of Castle Cousland, hands clasped behind his back, a nostalgic feeling in his chest. He walked past the kitchens, where Old Nan was shouting at the Elven servants to get a move on and prepare the food for that night’s supper. A memory creeped its way into his mind.

             A tiny Elissa with two pigtails hid beneath a table, out of Old Nan’s view. Nathaniel, just as small, lingered in the doorway, scared to provoke Old Nan who knew how to throw her rolling pin with such accuracy that you could have a tender bruise for months. But Elissa’s mischievous smile and beckoning hand lured him inside, sneaking beneath the table to join her.

             They reached up from below, their small fingers searching for the sugar cookies the Elven servants had just taken out of the oven. Nathaniel, whose arms were slightly longer than Elissa’s, managed to grab hold of one. Just as Elissa reached a little higher to grab hers, Old Nan’s shriek made them jump out of their skin. They darted out from beneath the table and sprinted down the corridor, giggling as Old Nan threatened to chase after them, rolling pin in hand.

             They hid behind a statue of an ancient Cousland relative until Old Nan’s cries died out, and she retreated back into the kitchens. They looked to one another, and burst out in hearty laughter, before nibbling on their tasty, stolen treats.

             A small smile crept onto his face as Nathaniel strolled about the corridors. He loved this place. It was full of good memories and laughter. It was a place where he could be himself, genuinely happy. Not like home.

             Nathaniel decided to speak with his father before he found Fergus Cousland to begin their journey. It was proper to say goodbye to one’s family—even if you were sure they wouldn’t care if you did or not. He made his way past the courtyard, where Elissa was speaking with her mother. He did not want to interrupt as they appeared deep in conversation, so he continued on towards the guest rooms, where he was sure his father would be after speaking with their host, Bryce Cousland.

             As he drew near, Nathaniel heard his father’s voice from inside one of the grander guest rooms. “Where are my men?”

             “They are almost here, ser. Not long now before they arrive.”

             “Tell them to wait. We do not want them arriving too early. It might ruin everything.”

             “Don’t worry, ser. It will all go to plan.”

             “It had better. If this doesn’t go smoothly…”

             Nathaniel knocked politely on the door. “Father,” he called.

             All voices inside stopped. “Come in.”

             Nathaniel walked inside to see his father huddled around a table with a handful of men he had brought ahead with him to Highever. His father remained composed, but his men’s shifty eyes put Nathaniel on edge. They scooped up a few pieces of parchment on the table, and after bowing politely to Rendon Howe they rushed out of the room. They did not bow to Nathaniel, like Bryce Cousland’s men would have bowed to Elissa, but he didn’t care.

             “You’ve finished speaking with Lord Cousland?” Nathaniel asked.

             His father grunted in reply. “Obviously.” He turned his back to his son and wandered over to his king-sized bed, where his sword sat in its sheath. He picked it up, pulling the blade free, the metal glistening in the candlelight.

             Nathaniel eyed him suspiciously. He had been away more than he had been at home recently, but he could still tell when his father was up to something. The cunning look in his eyes, the smirk playing at the corners of his mouth…his father was never this happy.

             “So, our men will be here in the morning?” Nathaniel asked, trying to spark conversation as Rendon seemed intent on ignoring him.

             “My men will be, yes,” he said curtly. “I do not know why you bothered coming here, boy. You are not a proper Howe, like your brother.”

             “I’m sure you would have brought Thomas if you could,” Nathaniel said bitterly. “I didn’t come for you anyway. I came to—” He paused before he could say, ‘to see Elissa’, and instead said, “—to have a break from squiring.”

             “Tiring of that life already, are you?” said Rendon. “You should have stayed home and taken up the role of my heir as you were intended for.”

             “I don’t want to argue with you,” Nathaniel said quickly, hoping to avoid another screaming match with his father, which always seemed to happen these days. “I just came to say goodbye before I leave with Fergus this evening. I don’t know when I’ll see you next.”

             “There is no need,” said Rendon, placing the blade back on the bed. “You have made it very clear where you stand.”

             Nathaniel resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I’ve told you dozens of times, Father. Just because I’m squiring for Ser Rodolphe now, it doesn’t been I’ve abandoned the family. I still go by the family name and wear it proudly.”

             “It matters not whether you wear my name proudly,” Rendon spat. “You have abandoned your duty as my heir, and I take that as abandoning the family. Go, be a squire, but you will receive no praise from me.”

             Nathaniel’s hands clenched into fists at his sides, trembling as he tried to restrain the anger and hurt swirling inside of him, tightening his chest. “Very well,” he said, through gritted teeth, “I will leave you be.” He turned on his heels and marched out of the room, making sure to slam the door behind him.

             He took slow, deep breaths as he walked in an attempt to calm himself. His father had never been the nicest to him since he had expressed his wish several years ago to become a warrior rather than head of the family, and although he was used to such coldness from him, his father always knew how to make his words hurt the most. It was as though he had punched Nathaniel in the chest with every piece of criticism.

             He decided to step outside to get some fresh air before meeting Fergus. It would not do well to look flushed and angry when dealing with the Cousland heir. He stopped near the study, breathing in the scent of wet stone as he leant back against a wall.

             “Don’t worry, I won’t mention this to anyone,” said Elissa’s voice from nearby, bouncing off the walls to his ears. Nathaniel perked up, craning his neck to see where it had come from. “Good luck with the battle tomorrow.” She came out of the study with her Mabari hound bounding after her. Inside was a blushing young man, the sight of whom made Nathaniel’s heart clench. What is she doing in the study with him? …Alone.

             He pushed himself off the wall and chased after her. He managed to catch her as she turned down a corridor to enter the bedrooms, grabbing hold of her arm.

             “Oh, Nate!” she said, a smile on her face. “Where have you been? I was hoping to catch you after speaking with Fergus—”

             “Who was that?” he asked. “In the study.”

             Elissa knitted her brows together at him. “Dairren, a family friend.” Her eyes flicked down to the hand on her arm. Nathaniel released her.

             “Do you think it’s such a good idea for you to be alone with him? You have a reputation you know.”

             Elissa snorted. “Seriously, Nate? What do you take me for, a lust-filled dewy-eyed girl?”

             “No! Of course not,” Nathaniel spluttered. “I just…you were…it didn’t look right.”

             Elissa tilted her head. “And why exactly should it matter to you what I do? You’re not my husband.”

             Nathaniel almost blurted the words, ‘I wish I was,’ but quickly stopped himself, his mouth moving without any words. He had no idea of Elissa felt the same way as he did about her. She never made any advances towards him, never showed any affection apart from the odd embrace here and there. They were simply friends, nothing more…not that Nathaniel wanted it to be that way. He must have wanted to tell her his feelings at least a hundred times in the decade he had known her, but he never made a move. Mostly because he was too afraid to, worried about ruining their friendship, something he treasured more than anything. If I can’t be her partner, I’ll be her friend, he had decided.

             Elissa watched him curiously as heat flushed across his face. “Well, I should really catch Fergus before he leaves,” she said. “You’re welcome to join me.”

             Nathaniel ran a hand through his hair to shield his face from her. “I need to speak with him anyway.”

             If Elissa suspected anything, she said nothing, instead leading the way towards Fergus’ room.

Chapter Text

4 – Elissa

Elissa found her family inside Fergus’ room, large enough to host his whole family. His wife and child were stood together by the bookshelves, speaking with Fergus, who was dressed in his armour, ready to leave.

             “Is there really going to be a war, Papa?” asked little Oren. He was a boy of seven, with the same chocolate-brown hair that both Elissa and Fergus shared, inherited from their father. “Will you bring me back a swe-ord?”

             Fergus chuckled, kneeling down to his son’s height. “That’s sword, Oren, and I’ll get you the mightiest one I can find, I promise. I’ll be back before you know it.”

             “I wish victory was indeed so certain,” said his pretty wife, Oriana, a lady from Antiva. “My heart is…disquiet.”

             Elissa remembered the tension between the two of them when Oriana and Fergus first began seeing one another. Elissa did not trust the woman, a foreigner from another land who was intent on winning her brother’s heart. Perhaps it was the Ferelden in her, only the Maker knew, but she was sure she had come with foul intentions. But over time, after watching the pair of them, Elissa realised that the Antivan wasn’t so bad. She genuinely loved her brother, and even considered Elissa a sister, despite Elissa’s coldness towards her.

             “Don’t frighten the boy, love,” said Fergus. “I speak the truth.” Fergus looked up to see Elissa and Nathaniel in the doorway. “And here’s my little sister to see me off. Now dry your eyes, love, and wish me well.”

             “No darkspawn could hurt my brother,” said Elissa with a proud smile. “He’s one of the best warriors I know.”

             “Indeed,” Nathaniel agreed beside her, shaking Fergus’ hand. “Your military trainer here boasts about his achievements through Fergus whenever I speak with him.”

             “He is as mortal as anyone,” said Oriana, “despite his refusal to believe.”

             Fergus placed a hand on her shoulder. “Now, love. No need to be grim.”

             “You will be missed, brother,” said Elissa. “It won’t be the same without you here.”

             Fergus smiled. “If it’s any consolation, I’m sure I’ll freeze in the southern rain and be completely jealous of you up here, warm and safe.”

             Oriana snorted. “I am positively thrilled that you will be so miserable, husband.”

             Sensing an argument was about to take place, Elissa quickly changed the subject. “Did you know there’s a Grey Warden in the castle?”

             “Really?” said Oren, his eyes wide with wonder. “Was he riding a griffon?”

             “Shush, Oren,” said his mother. “Griffons only exist in stories now.”

             “I’ve heard that,” said Fergus. “Did he say why he’s come?”

             “He’s recruiting,” answered Nathaniel.

             “Oh? If I were a Grey Warden, little sister, I’d have my eye on you. Not that Father would ever allow it.”

             “I wish I could go with you,” said Elissa. “Then I wouldn’t have to play Lady Cousland and spend all my time inside doing boring duties.”

             “I wish you could come. It’ll be tiring, killing all those darkspawn myself.”

             “In Antiva,” said Oriana, “a woman fighting in battle would be…unthinkable.”

             “You haven’t seen Elissa fight,” said Nathaniel.

             “Is that so?” said Fergus, sliding close to his wife, hands resting on her waist. “I always heard Antivan women were quite dangerous.”

             Oriana neared her lips to his. “With kindness and poison only, my husband,” she cooed.

             He planted a kiss on her lips. “This from a woman who serves me my tea!”

             Elissa cleared her throat, looking away from the expression of love in front of her. “Do you really think the war will be over quickly?”

             Fergus pulled away from his wife at the look of discomfort on his sister’s face. “Word from the south is that the battles have gone well. There’s no evidence that this is a true Blight—just a large raid.”

             “Could that be true?” said Oriana.

             “I’ll see for myself soon enough. Pray for me, love, and I’ll be back within a month or two.”

             “I actually came to deliver a message,” said Elissa. “Father wants you to leave without him.”

             “Then the Arl’s men are delayed. You’d think his men were all walking backwards—no offence,” he added quickly to Nathaniel, who waved away his concern. “Well, I’d better get underway. So many darkspawn to behead, so little time.” He embraced his wife, giving her one last kiss before ruffling Oren’s hair. “Off we go then. I’ll see you all soon.”

             Just as Elissa moved to embrace her brother, the door behind them opened, and their parents entered. “I would hope, dear boy, that you planned to wait for us before taking your leave?” said their father.

             Eleanor held Fergus’ head in her hands, her eyes scanning him as if to imprint his face to memory. “Be well, my son,” she said. “I will pray for your safety every day you are gone.”

             “I keep telling you—no darkspawn will ever best me.”

             Oriana placed her hands together in prayer. “The Maker sustain and preserve us all. Watch over our sons, husbands, and fathers, and bring them safely back to us.”

             “And bring us some ale and wenches while you’re at it!” Fergus cheered, then froze at the sight of his wife’s stern face. “Uhh…for the men, of course.”

             “Fergus! You would say this in front of your mother?”

             “What’s a wench?” asked Oren. “Is that what you pull on to get the bucket out of the well?”

             Elissa and Fergus both burst out laughing, whilst Eleanor and Oriana frowned disapprovingly.

             Bryce quickly stepped in. “A wench is a woman that pours ale in a tavern, Oren. Or a woman who drinks a lot of ale.”

             “Bryce!” scolded Eleanor. “Maker’s breath, it’s like living with a pair of small boys. Thankfully, I have a daughter.”

             Elissa bit her lip to stop herself from laughing. In the corner of her eye, she noticed Nathaniel watching them all, a longing look in his eye.

             “I’ll miss you, Mother dear,” said Fergus. “You’ll take care of her, sister, won’t you?”

             “Of course. You take care of yourself as well,” Elissa replied, pulling her brother into an embrace. He returned the gesture, holding her tight. For a moment she felt like a little girl again, her big brother holding her in the middle of the night after a nightmare, or when she had scraped her knee on the ground in sparring practice. In his arms was safe and nostalgic, and she held on to him a little longer than usual before she forced herself to pull away. He’ll be fine, she told herself. He’s the best fighter Highever has. He’ll come back in one piece.

             “Pup,” said Bryce, “you’ll want to get an early night. You’ve much to do tomorrow.”

             Elissa nodded, her heart suddenly as heavy as lead. “I’ll see you when you return, Fergus,” she said. “And Father, you’d better not leave without saying goodbye.”

             “I’ll come find you, pup,” Bryce promised. “Now, off to bed.”

             Nathaniel followed Elissa out of the room, leaving her father and mother to say their goodbyes.

             “Are you okay?” Nathaniel asked, walking her to her room.

             “Not really,” she replied honestly. “I know Fergus can take care of himself but I still worry for him.”

             “As any true sister would.”

             It was a short walk from Fergus’ room to hers. They both lingered outside the door, unsure what to say to one another. Elissa opened her door and hovered in the entrance, looking up at Nathaniel. “I guess I’d better get some rest. I have to be head of the castle tomorrow.”

             Nathaniel nodded. “That’s probably best. I should prepare for my journey as well.”

             She reached out and touched his arm, his hands clasped in front of him. “I wish you luck on your journey,” she said. “I know your father isn’t proud of you for what you’re doing, but…I am.”

             Nathaniel didn’t move, but his grey eyes locked onto her, his gaze intense.

             “Doing what you love…it’s inspiring. I wish I could do the same.”

             Nathaniel released himself from his usual stiff manner and pulled Elissa into an embrace. She wrapped her arms around his waist, her head resting on his chest, hearing his heartbeat gently thud beneath her ear.

             “I’m not sure when I’ll see you again,” he said into her hair.

             “We both have our own lives now. The Maker has taken us in two different directions.”

             “Me, a squire. You, a Lady of Highever.”

             Elissa sighed quietly. “I’ll miss you, Nate.”

             Nathaniel pulled back slightly, sliding a hand up to her cheek, his thumb gently caressing her skin. “I’ll miss you too,” he said, looking down at her with soft eyes. It made Elissa’s heart skip a beat. They were so close now, Nathaniel’s other hand still holding her back, the other stroking her cheek. If she just reached up onto her toes, their lips would touch.

             The thought of such a thing took her breath away. She looked up into those silver eyes of his, wondering what he would do if she did kiss him. Would he stop her? Would he kiss her back?

             She closed her eyes and reached up towards him. Nathaniel closed his eyes as he leant down into her, their lips almost touching…

             The bang of a door closing down the hall made Nathaniel jerk back from her, the both of them flushed. Elissa looked down the hall to see her parents leave Fergus’ room. Eleanor looked back to see their pair of them blushing and awkwardly fiddling with their clothes, a small smirk on her face, before she turned to follow her husband to their room.

             Elissa let slip a giggle at her and Nathaniel’s behaviour. “Take care of yourself, Nate,” she said, taking a step towards him. She leant up and kissed his cheek, before retreating inside her room, closing the door behind her.

Chapter Text

5 – Elissa

Elissa woke to her Mabari barking aggressively. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. Her Mabari always slept beside her, snuggled up against her legs, but now he was at the bedroom door, growling and barking.

             “What’s wrong, boy?” she asked, scraping her bed hair back from her face with her fingers. As she woke up, grogginess leaving her, she began to hear the sound of clashing swords and dying men. She leapt out of bed, pulling on a loose shirt, trousers, and boots before rummaging through her drawers to find the pair of daggers her father had gifted her a few years ago for her birthday.

             The fighting grew louder as she neared the door, daggers in both hands. Her Mabari continued to bark and growl, his eyes never leaving the door.

             Her heart leapt into her mouth as the door burst open, a servant running inside. “My lady! Help me!” he cried. “The castle is under attack—” An arrow pierced his back and through his chest. He tumbled to the floor, dead.

             Elissa jumped back in shock, the grip on her daggers momentarily slipping. Ahead of her were two armed men with bows and swords, grins on their faces. They found Elissa alone in her room and charged, but not before her Mabari could get to them first. He bounded forward and latched onto one of men’s legs, refusing to let go as he screamed.

             Coming to her senses, Elissa jumped into action, darting past her dog to reach the second man. She countered his attack with his sword and sent her dagger deep into his chest. But there were more men than she had anticipated. Along the corridor, her father’s men were fighting, the sound of blades clashing ringing through the air. Elissa jumped in to help, taking down as many men as she could, confused and bewildered as to what was going on. Who would attack us in the middle of the night?

             After slitting the throat of another intruder, Elissa looked down the hall to see fighting outside her parents’ room. Mother. She sprinted down the hall, dodging blows and arrows, her Mabari right behind her.

             “MOTHER!” she cried, reaching her door. She banged several times before Eleanor opened it, dressed in her bed clothes but with a bow and a quiver on her back.

             “Darling! I heard fighting outside and I feared the worst! Are you hurt?”

             Elissa looked down at herself. Blood splattered her clothes, but thankfully it wasn’t hers. “No, I’m fine,” Elissa assured her. “What’s going on?”

             “A scream woke me up. There were men in the hall, so I barred the door.” Her face twisted in anger as she looked down at a fallen soldier beside them. “Do you see their shields? Those are Howe’s men! Why would they attack us?”

             Howe’s? Elissa’s heart jolted in her chest. The Howe’s have betrayed us? …Did Nate know about this?

             “Rendon betrayed Father,” said Elissa, anger boiling in her chest, hot and painful. “He attacked us when our men are gone.”

             “You don’t think Howe’s men were delayed…on purpose?” Eleanor bared her teeth in anger. It was the most frightening look Elissa had ever seen on her mother’s usually cheerful face. If looks could kill… “That bastard! I’ll cut his lying throat myself! And his son!” Her face softened as fear gripped her. “Have you seen your father? He never came to bed!”

             Elissa shook her head, worry beginning to tingle over her skin. “I was in my room.”

             “We must find him!”

             Elissa grabbed hold of her mother’s arm as she moved towards the fighting. “Maybe you should stay here, Mother, where it’s safe.”

             “I most certainly will not!” Eleanor snapped. “I am no Orlesian wallflower—give me a sword and I’ll use it! Now, let’s go!” She marched down the hall, readying her bow. Elissa chased after her, sticking close.

             They fought along the corridor, Eleanor sending arrows into every Howe soldier she saw, and Elissa finished them off with her daggers, anger, hurt, and betrayal fuelling them both. “We must check on Oren and Oriana,” Eleanor insisted, turning the corridor to Fergus’ room.

             But as they reached the room, the door was cracked open, and they found nothing but death inside. Elissa’s eyes stung with hot tears as Oriana and Oren lay dead on the floor, covered in blood.

             “No!” Eleanor sobbed, her hands covering her mouth. “My little Oren! What manner of fiend slaughters innocents!”

             Elissa’s breath was ragged, her eyes blurry with tears. She wiped them away hastily as she tried to stay calm, fear and anger swirling inside her, making her queasy. “Why would Howe do this?”

             Eleanor bent down and stroked Oren’s hair. “He’s not even taking hostages! He means to kill all of us!” She sobbed again as she looked down at her lifeless grandson. “Oh, poor Fergus… Let’s go,” she said, standing. “I don’t want to see this.”

             Howe’s men were everywhere. They crawled about the castle like unwelcome vermin, killing anyone in sight. Eleanor and Elissa tried fighting their way through, but in some areas there were just too many of them. They resorted to sneaking through corridors and hiding behind statues until the coast was clear.

             They passed Lady Landra’s room to find her lying face down on her bed, the bedsheets soaked red. “Dear Landra…” said Eleanor, hesitantly entering the guest room, “I’m…I’m so sorry! If she hadn’t come to me… If she hadn’t been here…”

             “Mother!” cried a voice. “Mother, are you all right? I’m coming!”

             Dairren ran inside the room, stopping dead at the sight of his mother on her bed. “Oh, Maker, no…Mother, NO!” He took two steps towards her, when several arrows pierced his already bloody clothes, sending him to the ground.

             Elissa pulled her mother back from the doorway and threw a dagger towards the attacker. It hit him straight in the forehead, killing him instantly. Eleanor closed both Dairren and Landra’s eyes before joining Elissa outside as she pulled her dagger free of its recent target.

             “We must find Bryce,” Eleanor insisted, her voice breaking. “He must be by the front gates.” Elissa moved to head that way, but Eleanor pulled her aside. “Listen, dear. Although we don’t have much time, I must tell you this. If we can’t find your father, you must get out of here alive. Without you and Fergus, the entire Cousland line dies here. If Howe’s men are inside, they must already control the castle. We must use the servants’ entry in the larder to escape. Do you hear me?”

             Elissa shook her head. All she could think about was putting a knife straight into Rendon Howe’s treacherous heart. “I want Howe dead for what he’s done!”

             “Then survive and visit vengeance upon him!”

             Eventually they reached the front gates, where Ser Gilmore was commanding what was left of the Cousland forces. “Go! Man the gates!” he ordered, a calm voice amongst the chaos. “Keep those bastards out as long as you can!” He spotted Elissa and her mother and marched over to them. “Your Ladyship! My lady! You’re both alive! I was certain Howe’s men had gotten through!”

             “They did,” said Elissa, her voice breaking as emotion consumed her. If she closed her eyes, she could see little Oren, sprawled lifelessly on the floor. Her poor, innocent nephew. And although she was never too close to Oriana, there was no need for her to die too. Elissa was glad Fergus wasn’t here to see it.

             “They killed Oriana, and Oren…” said Eleanor. “I can’t believe—are you injured?”

             Ser Gilmore’s armour was splattered with blood and torn in some places. “Don’t worry about me, your Ladyship. Thank the Maker you two are unharmed.” He turned back to the gates to check on his men. They were huddled around them, their backs pressed against the wood, holding them closed. “When I realised what was happening, it was all I could do to shut the gates. But they won’t keep Howe’s men out long. If you’ve another way out of the castle, use it, quickly!”

             Elissa scanned the room, but there was someone missing. Someone she had completely forgotten about until now. “Where is the Grey Warden?” she asked.

             “I’ve no idea,” said Ser Gilmore. “You don’t think he’s involved in this, do you?”

             “Perhaps he…was sent to kill Bryce? Oh dear… Have you seen him?” Eleanor panicked.

             “When I last saw the teyrn, he’d been badly wounded. I urged him not to go, but he was determined to find you. He went towards the kitchens. I believe he thought to find you at the servants’ exit in the larder.”

             Eleanor patted his arm. “Bless you, Ser Gilmore. Maker watch over you!”

             Ser Gilmore bowed his head. “Maker watch over us all,” he said, before returning his attention to the gates, unsheathing his sword.

             Eleanor and her daughter raced towards the servants’ exit, dashing past fighting men, no longer stopping to help. Bryce was likely in danger, and they had to find him, fast.

             Elissa threw open the larder door to find her father propped up against sacks of flour on the floor, clutching a bloody wound on his side, grimacing in pain. “T-There…you both are,” he wheezed. “I was…wondering w-when you would…g-get here.”

             “Bryce!” Eleanor cried, rushing to his side, Elissa right behind her. “Maker’s blood, what’s happening? You’re bleeding!”

             “Howe’s men…found me first. Almost…did me in r-right there.”

             Elissa looked down at her father, bloody and wounded, her chest so tight it was almost painful. How could they have done this… The Howe’s and Couslands have been allies for years! Her mind then thought about the only Howe she considered an ally, a dear friend. Did Nate know about this? she wondered again. Did he know what his father was about to do to my family? Did he help? She had not seen him as she had navigated the castle. Perhaps he fled the scene before it happened, she thought bitterly, her already aching heart beginning to crack. Perhaps he didn’t want to be implicated in all this.

             “He can’t…get away w-with this! The k-king will…” Bryce let slip a groan, clutching his wound again.

             “Bryce! We must get you out of here!” said Eleanor.

             Bryce shook his head. “I…I won’t survive t-the standing, I think.”

             “No!” Elissa cried. “Don’t say that! You’ll be fine!”

             Despite the pain he clearly felt, Bryce smiled. “Ah, my d-darling girl! If only will could make it so.”

             “Once Howe’s men break through the gate, they will find us!” said Eleanor. “We must go!”

             “S-Someone…must reach Fergus. T-Tell him…what has h-happened.”

             “The servant’s passage is right here! We can flee together, find you healing magic!”

             Bryce shook his head again. “The castle is…s-surrounded. I-I cannot make it.”

             “I’m afraid the teyrn is correct,” said a deep voice, as smooth as honey. Eleanor and Elissa spun round to see the Grey Warden, Duncan, walk inside, sheathing his blades that were splattered with blood. “Howe’s men have not yet discovered this exit, but they surround the castle. Getting past will be difficult.”

             “You are…Duncan, then,” said Eleanor, “the Grey Warden?”

             Duncan knelt down beside Elissa and Eleanor. “Yes, your Ladyship. The teyrn and I tried to reach you sooner.”

             “My daughter helped me get here, Maker be praised.”

             Duncan replied, “I am not surprised.”

             “Why are you here?” Elissa demanded, not forgetting what Ser Gilmore had suggested minutes ago. “Why haven’t you left already?”

             “I did not want to leave your father alone,” Duncan answered.

             “Whatever is to be done now, it must be quick!” Eleanor cut in. “They are coming!”

             Bryce looked to the Grey Warden with pleading eyes. “Duncan…I-I beg you…take my w-wife and daughter to s-safety!”

             “I will, your Lordship. But…” Duncan looked away. “I fear I must ask for something in return.”

             “A-Anything!” Bryce blurted.

             “What is happening here pales in comparison to the evil now loose in this world. I came to your castle seeking a recruit. The darkspawn threat demands that I leave with one.”

             Bryce closed his eyes. “I…I understand.” He opened them weakly, and looked to Elissa.

             Realisation hit her like a ton of bricks. “What?” Elissa spluttered. “No! I won’t let you agree to such a thing!”

             “Then w-what else? How will you survive?”

             “No!” Elissa shouted, not caring that Howe’s men were probably on their way. “I told you before, I’m not interested in becoming a Grey Warden! I don’t want this, Father, please!”

             But Bryce said nothing in reply, unable to look her in the eye.

             “I will take the teyrna and your daughter to Ostagar,” said Duncan, “to tell Fergus and the king what has happened. Then, your daughter joins the Grey Wardens.”

             “So long as j-justice comes to Howe…I-I agree.”

             Duncan turned to Elissa. “Then I offer you a place within the Grey Wardens. Fight with us.”

             Elissa’s eyes flicked between the people around her. Bryce could not look at her, his face growing paler by the minute. Eleanor cried silent tears, her face wet and shiny as she wrapped her arms around her dying husband. Duncan, however, to Elissa’s surprise, looked solemn and apologetic.

             Elissa took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Perhaps joining the Grey Wardens will help me enact vengeance on Howe, she thought optimistically. Maybe this is the path the Maker wanted me on all along. I was never supposed to be a Lady. I’m a fighter, a warrior.

             “I suppose I have no choice,” she said. “I accept your offer.”

             “Howe thinks he’ll use the c-chaos to… advance himself,” said Bryce. “M-Make him wrong, pup. S-See that j-justice is d-done!” He coughed, blood trickling down his chin. “Our family…a-always does our duty first. The darkspawn m-must be defeated. Y-You must g-go. For your own s-sake… and f-for Ferelden’s.”

             “Duty first,” Elissa repeated, her eyes welling with tears again.

             “Then we must leave, quickly,” said Duncan, getting to his feet.

             “Bryce, are you…sure?” said Eleanor.

             “Our daughter will not die of Howe’s treachery,” Bryce insisted. “She will live, and make her mark on the world.”

             Eleanor nodded, determination in her green eyes. “Darling,” she said, “go with Duncan. You have a better chance to escape without me.”

             “E-Eleanor…”

             “Hush, Bryce. I’ll kill every bastard that comes through that door to buy them time,” she said, caressing his wrinkled face. “But I won’t abandon you.”

             “M-Mother, no,” Elissa sobbed, tears falling freely. “I can’t let you sacrifice yourself like this!”

             “My place is with your father, at his side, to death and beyond.”

             Bryce shakily reached up to hold his wife’s hand. “I’m…s-so sorry it’s c-come to this, my love…”

             Eleanor tenderly brushed wispy pieces of grey hair out of his eyes. “We had a good life, and did all we could. It’s up to our children now.”

             “Then…g-go, pup,” said Bryce. “And know that we love you both. You do us proud.”

             It was as though someone had shoved a dagger through her heart. It shattered into a million pieces, her chest so tight she could hardly breathe. “I love you too,” was all she could say, as Duncan tapped her on the shoulder when a loud crash vibrated through the castle.

             “They’ve broken through the gates,” he said urgently. “We must go, now!”

             Elissa forced herself to her feet and dragged herself away from her parents, who looked after her lovingly.

             “Goodbye, darling,” she heard her mother say as she and Duncan dashed through the door, never to see them again.

 

Elissa would never forget the night her family and those who lived in Cousland Castle were slaughtered. Rage and sorrow swirled inside of her, unable to let go of that night. Unable to forget her father’s dying words, nor her mother’s. Or Little Oren’s bloody body or his mother’s lifeless face. As she rode towards Ostagar with Duncan, towards her new life, she knew she would have to forsake her family ties. She would no longer be a Lady of Highever. No longer the second heir to house Cousland. Everything she had known for her entire life would be gone—all because of Arl Howe…and his son.

             The thought of Nathaniel’s betrayal was too much to bear. After years of friendship…after everything they had been through… How could he? Doubt often crossed her mind, however. I suspected nothing…could he be innocent? But anyone with the Howe name was tainted in her mind now, and she was sure he had something to do with it.

             Although her heart was broken, and her mind corrupt with vengeance and grief, she fulfilled her promise to join the Grey Wardens. And as she brought the cup of darkspawn blood to her lips, she made a silent promise to her parents—wherever they were now—that although she had left everything behind to join this legendary Order, she would never forget where she came from, and she would never forget who put her in this position in the first place.

             It may not be today, or tomorrow. In a month or in a year. But justice will be brought down upon you, Howes, she swore. I will never forget what you did, and I will ensure that you pay with your lives.

Chapter Text

6 – Elissa

As it turns out, being a Grey Warden isn’t half as fun as one would expect it to be. A part of the fabled order of warriors who carried out heroic duties to protect the world from Blights and darkspawn. Elissa was doing just that…covered in mud, blood, twigs, and thorns as she trudged through the Bracillian Forest towards the Dalish Camp, a piece of ironbark tucked under one arm, and the other holding up her elven companion, Zevran, who hobbled from a nasty leg wound after a fight with werewolves.

             She had successfully gained an alliance with Orzammar’s new king, and an army of dwarves she could call to her aid when needed. She had saved Ferelden’s Circle of Magi from abominations, maleficars, and demons, gaining the mages’ loyalty to her cause. She had rescued Connor Guerrin from the clutches of a Desire demon, and restored Arl Eamon to full health by securing a pinch of Andraste’s sacred ashes. Her army was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and all she needed now was the Dalish to fulfil their promise of aid once their werewolf problem had been solved, which it now had been, to complete the Grey Warden contracts and give her an edge in the battle that was sure to come in order to defeat the Archdemon.

             Elissa passed Zevran over to Wynne for healing, handed Varathorn his ironbark, and walked with Alistair over to Zathrian’s First, Lanaya.

             Layana greeted them with a look of relief. “It is done,” she said. “The essence of the wolf’s heart has banished all traces of the cursed blood from the hunters.” She sighed, “It is too bad that Zathrian had to die. I… I felt it, when he departed. I think he was ready to go.”

             “I’m sure he was,” Elissa replied.

             “It will be difficult to fill Zathrian’s shoes. He was our keeper for many centuries and he will be sorely missed.” She held herself a little higher. “But I am the keeper now. Let me say it officially, then. I hereby swear to uphold the terms of the ancient contract our people formed with the Grey Wardens. Call and we shall come, with great speed and purpose, and we shall strike at your foes. This I swear.”

             Elissa smiled, pleased that her hard work had paid off, “Thank you, Lanaya.”

             “It has been a long time since the Dalish marched to war… but I trust that, in the end, we shall make a difference for you.”

             As Layana wandered off to speak with those who had been cured of the werewolf affliction, Alistair leaned forward and whispered in Elissa’s ear, “Can we please find water to bathe in soon?” gesturing to the mud that snaked up his legs and onto his uniform. “I’ve got leaves in places they shouldn’t be.”

             Elissa bit back a snigger. “We can set camp beside a river,” she suggested, just as eager to get the muck and grime off her skin. As a Teyrn’s daughter, she had never once gone a day without a nice hot bath made by elven servants to keep her squeaky clean. Now, she was lucky if she could bathe every day, and the water was never warm. But that was not the only difference from her life before. Her hair, once long and flowy, was now plaited down her back to keep it out of the way during fights, which could happen at any moment, and she always wore her Grey Warden armour, blue and silver, proudly showing off the griffon on the small chest plate. Where she had once in her life spent many a day in her family’s castle, she was now always on the move, never camping in one place for too long as the darkspawn were everywhere. The last thing they needed was to come under attack in the middle of the night when all armour was off and people were snuggled in their blankets. On the positive side, however, she had seen most of Ferelden, both the good, the bad, and the frightening parts, which was a lot more than she could say in previous years, when the most exotic thing she had seen was Lady Landra’s garden of foreign plants in her estate.

             Alistair practically skipped alongside her as they went to fetch Wynne and Zevran to head back to their other companions waiting for them at camp. “We’re almost there! I can taste it!” he said. “We did what we set out to do.”

             Elissa nodded in reply. “We did. We just need to speak with Arl Eamon now to discuss the next stage of our plan to stop Loghain, and then the Blight.”

             “We’ll make him pay for killing Cailan, right?” he asked, his voice suddenly serious, a rare thing.

             “We will,” she promised. “I can guarantee that.” But Loghain was not the only person Elissa had in mind that she was going to punish. Loghain’s right hand man, Arl Rendon Howe, was right up there on that list with him, behind the Archdemon, of course. She had found out a few months ago through her first encounter with Zevran—when he had tried to kill her as an assassin hired by Loghain—that Arl Howe had a hand in a lot of Loghain’s schemes. She had not forgotten what he had done to her family and her home, and although it had almost been a year since that fateful day, the determination in her heart to plunge a dagger into his chest had never faded. She had waited patiently, but grew eager now the time was drawing close, she could feel it.

             They made the trip back to Redcliffe castle, where Arl Eamon and Bann Teagan were waiting for them in the main hall beside the gigantic, roaring fireplace. It sent waves of warmth through the room with every crackle of a flame. “I understand you’ve acquired all the allies you could?” asked Arl Eamon. He held himself tall, but the tiredness in his grey eyes and on his wrinkled face told Elissa that he was still recovering from the poison. He looked much better than when she had seen him last, however, weak in bed and unable to stand. “That’s good… we can call the Landsmeet, if you are ready. I do not wish to go to Denerim unless you are with me.”

             “Then let us go now,” said Elissa. “All my forces are ready.”

             “Excellent. I shall make the arrangements. Let us be off to Denerim and may the Maker watch over us.”

             A week later, everyone was settled in the Arl’s estate in Denerim, a grand mansion with a countless number of luxurious rooms. It reminded her of Cousland Castle, nostalgia clenching at her heart. She kept her emotions at bay by helping the Arl arrange for representatives of each of her allies to be housed here, for communication purposes, settle in her companions, and evaluate the situation in Denerim.

             Loghain had implemented a rule of fear in the royal town. Although it tried to continue life as normal, with a noisy marketplace, children running about playing chasing games, and guardsmen patrolling the grounds to keep everything in order, fear sunk into every nook and cranny, dampening everyone’s spirits like a cold, wet day.

             The Landsmeet had been called, striking the first blow. The advantage, for the moment, was theirs. Loghain would have little choice but to show himself, to oppose them directly. Elissa was more than ready to face the fiend who had caused so much disruption, fear, and death, and as she waited for him in the entrance hall of Arl Eamon’s estate with Alistair, the Arl, and her companions Leliana and Wynne. Adrenaline buzzed through her veins in anticipation. But what she had not expected, was who Loghain would bring with him.

             It was as though Wynne had cast ice to shoot through Elissa’s veins at the sight of the man strolling proudly beside the traitor. Her body tensed, fingers clenching into fists at her sides as Arl Howe approached beside Loghain, a huge smirk on his face. Wynne appeared to notice her sudden change of posture, and placed a gentle hand on her arm, grounding her, as if to say, ‘Don’t lose your head’.

             “Loghain,” said the Arl, stepping forward to address him. “This is…an honour, that the regent would find time to greet me personally.”

             Loghain sniffed. “How could I not welcome a man so important as to call every lord in Ferelden away from his estates while a Blight claws at our land?”

             “The Blight is why I am here. With Cailan dead, Ferelden must have a king to lead it against the darkspawn.”

             “Ferelden has a strong leader; it’s queen. And I lead her armies.”

             Elissa stepped up beside the Arl. “Considering what happened at Ostagar,” she spat, “she needs another general.”

             Loghain finally looked at her, as if he had only just noticed she were there. “Ah, the Grey Warden recruit. I thought we might meet again. You have my sympathies on what happened to you order. It is unfortunate that they chose to turn against Ferelden.”

             “I don’t accept apologies from deserters and regicides.”

             Loghain snarled. “You should curb your tongue. This is my city, and no safe place to speak treason, for anyone.” He stopped to compose himself, lowering his voice. “There is talk that your illness left you feeble, Eamon. Some worry that you may no longer be fit to advise Ferelden.”

             “Illness?” barked the Arl. “Why not call your poison by its true name? Not everyone at the Landsmeet will cast aside their loyalties as easily as you and these…sycophants.”

             Loghain snorted. “How long you’ve been gone from court, Eamon! Don’t you recognise Rendon Howe, Arl of Amaranthine, and Teyrn of Highever.”

             Every cell in Elissa’s body ignited with anger, her face twisting into a vicious snarl. Teyrn of Highever? She bared her teeth, shoulders tensed up by her ears. Wynne placed her hand on her arm again, but she barely felt it as her pulse thudded in her ears, seeing red.

              “And current Arl of Denerim,” Howe added, feigning modesty, “after Urien’s unfortunate fate at Ostagar. Truly, it is an embarrassment of riches.”

             Elissa contained the anger on her face, twisting it into a deadly smile, as sharp as the daggers on her back. “Enjoy your moment, Howe. It will end soon enough.”

             A lady beside Loghain, dressed in the finest armour money could buy, stepped forward. “You are either very bold or very stupid to threaten the teryn before witnesses,” she warned.

             Loghain waved her concern aside. “Enough, Cauthrien, this is not the time or place.” He turned back to Eamon. “I had hoped to talk you down from this rash course. Our people are frightened. Our king is dead. Our land is under siege. We must be united now, if we are to endure this crisis. Your own sister, Queen Rowan, fought tirelessly to see Ferelden restored. Would you see her work destroyed? You divide our nation and weaken our efforts against the Blight with your selfish ambitions to the throne.”

              Elissa laughed humourlessly. “What efforts can there be when you outlaw Grey Wardens?”

             “Cailan depended on the Grey Wardens’ prowess against the darkspawn, and look how well that ended. Let us speak of reality, rather than tall tales. Stories will not save us.”

             Arl Eamon sighed, disappointment all over his tired face. “I cannot forgive what you’ve done, Loghain. Perhaps the Maker can, but not I. Our people deserve a king of the Therin bloodline. Alistair will be the one to lead us to victory in this Blight.”

             “Oh, is that all I have to do?” said Alistair. “No pressure…”

             “The emperor of Orlais also thought I could not bring him down,” said Loghain, invading Eamon’s personal space by standing right in front of him, a threatening look in his cold blue eyes. “Expect no more mercy than I showed him. There is nothing I would not do for my homeland.” With that, he turned on his heels and marched away, Arl Howe and Ser Cauthrien chasing after him.

             As the doors closed behind them, Arl Eamon addressed the group. “Well, that was…bracing,” he joked. “I didn’t expect Loghain to show himself quite so soon.”

             Elissa could not participate in the humour, however. “Howe killed my family. I won’t let him get away with it.”

             “I would not ask you to,” Eamon assured her. “But bear in mind that he will be well-protected by his alliance with Loghain. He always seemed the kind of man who enjoyed kicking stray dogs. I would not have thought Loghain would trust him. We need eyes and ears in the city. Loghain has been here for months. The roots of all his schemes must begin here. The sooner we find them, the better we can turn them to our advantage. Go have a look around and see what you can turn up. Better yet, find the nobles who have arrived for the Landsmeet. Test the waters, see how many will support us. When you’re ready to talk strategy, come upstairs to my sitting room. We can lay out our plans for the Landsmeet then.”

Chapter Text

7 – Elissa

Elissa sat on a patch of grass in Denerim’s busy town centre, her legs spread out in front of her, the sun’s rays warming her skin. Alistair had run off with her Mabari, who they had named Barkspawn—partly as a joke, but somehow it stuck, and the dog seemed to like it. He needed to let off some steam after being cooped up at camp, so Alistair offered to walk him about the town so he could chase rats that lurked in the gutters or growl at some guards to make them squeal.

             Elissa watched from afar. She attempted a smile as the local children asked her if they could pet her Mabari, but there was a heavy weight on her chest. Seeing Arl Howe after so long had invoked such a rage within her that she could have easily killed him right where he stood. A part of her wondered why she hadn’t.

             “Did no one tell you that if the wind changes, your face will stay that way forever?” said a gentle voice. Wynne settled down on the grass beside her, and neatened out her robes as she spoke. “My dear, if you were a mage, you would have set the Arl on fire! The amount of raw anger I felt emanating out of you.”

             “I told you what happened to my family, Wynne,” Elissa replied, not looking at her. Wynne always looked at her with big, warm eyes that made emotion choke up in her throat if she so much as looked at her welcoming face when discussing something personal. She didn’t feel like crying out here, in front of a whole town of people. “Arl Howe killed them all. Every last man, woman, child, servant, knight, and guard was killed. My parents are dead, my brother…” She closed her eyes, her chest becoming tight. “I have no idea whether he lives. He never turned up at Ostagar, his men are nowhere to be found. I’ve heard no news of him.”

             Wynne wrapped a comforting arm around Elissa’s shoulders. “We cannot presume him deceased if there is no body,” she assured her. “He is alive until said otherwise. You cannot give up on him.”

             “I know,” Elissa replied, her voice small. “It’s just…when I saw Howe today… I thought I had gotten over it. I thought I had gained control over my emotions about that day, about what he did. But it appears as though I haven’t, because I just felt so… so angry when I saw him.”

             Wynne released Elissa and rummaged around in her apothecary satchel that she kept with her at all times. Elissa knew it was full of supplies and healing herbs, but Wynne pulled something out of it that was not like anything Elissa had seen before. It was a small box, old and rubbed with time. Wynne opened it with a click, and inside was a lock of feeble, fair hair. “I’ve never told anyone this,” she said, in a voice that suggested Elissa keep this between them, “but I had a child once. I gave birth to him in the Circle Tower.” She took the lock of hair and held it in her palm, closing her fingers around it. It was so delicate that Elissa dared not breathe, in case it was blown away by her exhale. “But mages are not allowed to have children with one another, so the boy was taken away.”

             Elissa blinked, her mouth gaping open, speechless. “You’re a mother?”

             “Possibly a grandmother too, at my age.” Wynne put the lock of hair back in the box, and replaced it in her bag. “I never saw him again. I do not know whether he lived or died, but in my heart I hope he is well, wherever he is.” She turned to face Elissa, those warm, welcoming eyes shiny with grief of her own. “I had to deal with the anger that built up inside of me for a long time after that,” she said. “I was horrible to everyone around me, blaming everything and everyone for what had happened. It tore me apart. I became a different person, because I allowed my grief and anger to consume me. It clouded my judgement, made me lose an apprentice when I began teaching—though, of course, we know now what became of him, and for that I am thankful.” She reached over and took one of Elissa’s hands in between both of hers in her lap. “What I’m trying to say is, although what happened to you was horrific by all standards, a terrible betrayal that will no doubt haunt you for the rest of your life, you must not let this grief and anger consume you. You must control your emotions and not let them get the better of you. You need a straight head for the task ahead of you, for it is no simple one. You must keep your thoughts clear of what happened, especially when you come face-to-face with him, which will no doubt happen as he is Loghain’s right hand man. He will relish in your anger. You don’t want that, do you?”

             Elissa shook her head. “No.”

             “You are a strong woman, hence why you survived the Joining into the Grey Wardens. The Maker has put you on this path for a reason. He gives us tests like these to help us prevail and grow even stronger. He would not have given you this pain if he did not think you could handle it.”

             Elissa looked up at Wynne, with those kind, old eyes, and for a moment she was reminded of her mother, Eleanor. How she would be able to comfort her whenever she was down. How she would always give perfect advice that resolved most difficult situations. She had been a best friend as well as a mother, and Elissa was beginning to feel the same way about Wynne. She had been by her side through thick and thin, giving Elissa advice whenever necessary, healing her when injured, protecting her when down, cheering her up when she had a nightmare with some of her home cooking, and more.

             Elissa rested her head on Wynne’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

             “Neither do I. You’d probably get yourself into a whole host of trouble!” she teased. “Now, let’s pick ourselves up. We should find Alistair and…what have you named your Mabari now? Barkspawn? Ha, what a humorous name.”

             Elissa got to her feet, and helped pull Wynne to hers, her old bones creaking. Barkspawn and Alistair were both chasing one another around the market place, along with a group of small local children.

             “He fits right in, doesn’t he?” said Wynne.

             Elissa chuckled. Alistair was youthful all right. He defused most tense situations with humour, only took certain things seriously, such as his Grey Warden duty, and treated Wynne like his mother, asking her to darn his socks and sew up holes in his shirts. Sometimes Elissa felt like she was speaking to a child trapped in the body of an adult. Either way, Alistair always knew how to make someone laugh. He had even cracked a smile on Morrigan’s face once, which she denied whenever someone reminded her of it.

              But she knew that he had troubles of his own weighing him down. His half-brother dead, his mentor killed, his royal blood forcing him to do things he didn’t want, like possibly take on the responsibility of becoming king of a nation. She could see it sometimes, in the way he smiled. It never quite reached his eyes.

             Elissa whistled for Barkspawn and he came running, Alistair following along behind.

             “Did you learn anything useful whilst running around like headless chicken?” Wynne asked Alistair, straightening her robes.

             “I think I had more grace than a chicken,” Alistair protested. “But perhaps that’s why the Templars were happy to see me go.” He looked back at a set of gates leading down into a small, run down part of town. “There’s chaos in the Alienage,” he told them, lowering his voice for only them to hear. “The children told me the guards won’t let anyone in there…or out.”

             “Perhaps we should look into that further,” said Wynne.

             “Anything about the Lords that are staying here?” asked Elissa.

             “Most of them are in the tavern, there,” he answered, pointing to the one in the centre of town just beside them. “We should probably speak with them after reporting back to Eamon.”

             Elissa nodded in agreement. It was too early in the day to speak to them. If she knew anything about Lords, it was that their tongues became loose after a few drinks. She would visit the tavern later to see whether she could sway any of them to her side.

             Eamon was upstairs in his sitting room, a place filled with comfy armchairs, a roaring fire, and scrolls and books dotted about everywhere. He was sat waiting for her inside, and stood to greet her. “Ah, Elissa, I trust you made yourself comfortable here.” Beside him stood a little elven woman, wearing servant clothes.

             “Who’s this?”

             “This is Erlina, she’s—”

             “I am Queen Anora’s handmaiden,” the elf answered, her voice thick with an Orlesian accent. “She sent me here to ask for your help.”

             Elissa frowned. “Why would Anora ask us for help?”

             “The queen, she is in a difficult position. She loved her husband, no? And trusted her father to protect him. When he returns with no king and only dark rumours, what is she to think? She worries, no? But when she tries to speak with him, he does not answer. He tells her ‘not to trouble herself.’”

             Elissa listened intently as the elf spoke, her arms folded across her chest. “Are you saying the queen believes Loghain killed Cailan?”

             “My queen suspects she cannot trust her father. And Loghain, he is very subtle, no? But Rendon Howe, he is privy to all the secrets and…not so subtle. So she goes to Howe. A visit from the queen to the new Arl of Denerim is only a matter of courtesy. And she demands answers.”

             Elissa ignored the urge to tense up at the mention of the Arl. “What did he say?”

             The elf crinkled her tiny nose. “Things no decent person would repeat. He calls her every sort of name, ‘traitor’ being the kindest, and locks her in a guest room.”

             Elissa raised her brow, doubtful. “Loghain would allow that?”

             “King Cailan was like a son to him, and Loghain left him to die. Does he love Anora more? Who can say?” The elf wrung her hands together in front of her stomach. “I think… her life is in danger. I-I heard Howe say she would be a greater ally dead than alive. Especially if her death could be blamed on Arl Eamon.”

             “Is Loghain capable of that? Killing his own daughter, just to frame Eamon?”

             Eamon shook his head, unsure. “We may have no choice but to trust Anora. The queen is well-loved. If Loghain succeeded in pinning her death on me… I’m not sure that’s a risk we can afford to take.”

             Elissa pursed her lips in thought. “Why should we trust her? This could be a set up.”

             “I fear if this is a trap, we are already caught in it. They can kill Anora whether or not we act and blame her death on us. Few would believe our word over Loghain’s. We can only defend ourselves with the queen in hand.”

             Elissa had no choice but to agree. No matter what they did, it would be a sticky situation. “So, what do you propose we do?”

             “I have some uniforms,” said Erlina. “Arl Howe hires so many new guards every day, a few more will not cause much stir. I will show you the servant’s entrance. We must slip in and out with my queen before anyone is the wiser. I will go ahead to Howe’s estate. Meet me there as soon as you can.” She scurried out of the room.

             Eamon rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand as he resumed his seat beside the fireplace. “I’m glad you decided to help,” he said, inviting Elissa to sit on a sofa opposite him. “With Anora’s knowledge, we have a far better chance against Loghain.”

             Elissa took a seat and sat back, resting her head against the back. “Do you really think Anora would turn against her own father? I’m doubtful.”

             “From Erlina’s story, he turned against her first. If he truly intends to sacrifice her, I think it would be strong motivation to break the parental bonds.” He too leaned back in his chair, resting his old and tired body, still recovering from the poison. “In any event, I would far rather have the opportunity to ask such things of her than simply hear about her murder. If Anora speaks out against Loghain, hers would indeed be one of the most powerful voices at the Landsmeet.”

             “Be that as it may…I’m not sure I trust this Erlina. She knows too much.”

             Eamon nodded in agreement. “She’s obviously more than a maidservant. But I imagine it’s useful for Anora to have a trusted attendant who can move more freely than she herself.” He leaned forward in his chair and reached for a bottle of expensive wine in the centre of the table between them. He poured himself a glass and offered one to Elissa, but she politely refused. She was in no mood to have a drink. She had things to do. “Consider what aid she and the queen might be to us,” he continued. “If Anora has truly turned against her father, she becomes the one thing we lack. Someone with a true understanding of Loghain’s plans and allies. With her guidance, we can form a far more successful strategy against him.”

             “Well,” she said, standing, “I should go and meet Erlina.”

             Eamon raised his glass to her. “I pray that you are successful.”

             Elissa expressed her thanks with an incline of the head before leaving the room, her mind clouded with thoughts. Can I trust Erlina? Perhaps…she seems the loyal type, innocent enough. Perhaps it is her master I should be wary of. She is the daughter of Loghain after all. But one person’s name niggled at the back of her mind. Arl Howe. She would have to break into his estate here in Denerim. I hope he’s there, she thought. I would like to return the favour by killing him in his own home, like he did my parents.

             Before she could get carried away of thoughts about vengeance and justice, she cleared her mind and focused on the task at hand. As her father had always told her, duty first.

Chapter Text

8 – Elissa

Elissa gathered Alistair, Wynne, and Leliana before heading out to Arl Howe’s estate. What they found when they arrived however was utter chaos. A huge crowd of people had gathered at the entrance, shouting and protesting about one thing or another, anger surging through them. Clearly the people of Denerim didn’t like their new Arl. A little smirk appeared on Elissa’s face at that.

             Erlina was crouched behind a wagon at the edge of the crowd, and beckoned them over with a wave of her tiny hand. Elissa and the others sneaked around the edge of the crowd and joined the maidservant. “The servants entrance is on the other side of the house,” she said in a whisper. “We must slip past this crowd to reach it. We will have to be very careful: Arl Howe is inside.”

             Elissa jolted again at his name, her muscles tensing, but she was eager to see him again. She would no longer fear the man who destroyed her family name. She allowed the feeling to consumed her, and turned it into excitement. Excitement to kill him, that is.

             They darted out from behind the wagon and crept around the side of the estate, down a deserted alleyway, until they reached a door manned by two guards in plain, silver armour.

             “I can distract the guards, but you must move quickly,” said Erlina. She handed out the disguises, hidden in a sack she had carried with her. They were the exact same silver armour that the guards ahead of them wore. They slipped them on over their clothes and pulled down the helmets to cover their faces.

             “I will lure them into the courtyard. Wait in the bushes.” Elissa and the others hid themselves behind the green foliage growing beside the tall walls as Erlina ran over to the guards in a panic. “Oh! You must come! I saw something!” she cried. “By the fountain! I think it was a darkspawn!”

             “Darkspawn?” asked one, though he looked doubtful.

             “They will drag us all underground to be eaten!”

             The guard looked to his colleague. “Should we call for help?”

             “Did you fall off a cart full of stupid?” said the other guard. “Call for help? So they can see us act like scared little girls because of some knife-eared wench?”

             “They will eat us all alive! Please! Get help!” Erlina begged.

             She’s quite the actor, Elissa thought. She looked back at her companions to see suspicion grow across their faces. I hope she wasn’t lying about Anora.

             “If there is something out there,” said the first guard,” and we don’t sound the alarm, we’ll look worse than scared.”

             The second guard threw his hands up in frustration. “Andraste’s holy knickers! Fine, we’ll check the courtyard, if it’ll keep you from wetting yourself. But there’s nothing there.”

             Erlina beamed. “Thank you! Oh! It was over here! Quickly!” She ran past Elissa and the others concealed in the bushes, the guards following right behind her to the courtyard.

             “It’s showtime,” said Elissa. They jumped out of the bushes and through the door. Erlina circled back, having lost the guards in the courtyard, and scurried in after them.

             “You must be careful now,” she warned. “The servants, they will not look closely at anyone in uniform. All guards are alike to a cook, no? But you should not draw attention to yourself.”

             “Thank goodness we didn’t bring Zevran, or Oghren,” Leliana joked.

             “Most of the guards are new. They will not know you for a stranger at a glance. It is best you keep your distance from all of them and try to blend in.”

             Elissa fiddled with her armour. It was clunky and heavy, not like light and easily movable Grey Warden armour she had on underneath—without the chest plate. “Where’s Anora?”

             “She is in a guest room off the main hall,” said Erlina. “Andraste guide us.”

             Her heart was in her mouth as Elissa tried her best to act like a guard. She thought back to how her father’s guards had acted. With pride in their positions and fully committed to their duty of protection. She strolled through the corridors, searching for the main hall. It was difficult trying to act like you knew your way around when you had absolutely no idea. She kept her head facing forward whilst using her eyes to scan the path ahead.

             Erlina, pretending not to know them, tried her best to subtly guide them, but it was hard without drawing attention. Eventually, Erlina turned down a corridor. Elissa and the others followed. They reached the grand, main hall, before turning right again, into a corridor that led into what looked like rows of bedrooms.

              Erlina ran straight for a door that had a strange, glowing light surrounding it. “I have brought the Grey Warden, my lady,” she said.

             The voice on the other side of the door sounded exasperated. “Thank the Maker! I would greet you properly, but I’m afraid we’ve had…a setback.”

             “What sort of setback?” asked Elissa.

             “My ‘host’ was not content with leaving me under heavy guard. He’s sealed the door by magic.”

             Elissa looked to the maidservant. “Why didn’t you mention that before?”

             “I-I did not know!” she squeaked. “There were only guards here when I left! We must get her out of there!”

             “Don’t panic, Erlina!” said Anora through the door. “Find the mage who cast the spell. He’ll most likely be at Howe’s side.”

             Elissa snorted. “So much for secrecy.”

             “Well,” said Anora, “if he didn’t know you were here, he soon will.”

             “Good,” Elissa growled. “I wanted to see Howe anyway.”

             “Thank you, Warden. My prayers go with you.”

             “Teyrn Howe will probably be in his rooms,” said Erlina. “They’re at the end of the hall on the left.”

             With a brief nod, Elissa turned and left the maidservant at the door. Arl Howe was here, and she would be paying him a visit.

             They continued strolling down corridors, pretending to act like they should be there, until they slipped down a path that led below the estate into what looked like dungeons, with cells lining the walls.

             “Who goes there?” a voice shouted.

             The group froze, turning to see a guard standing outside a cell. He reached for the blade on his belt… When two arms dived out from between the cell bars behind him and closed around his neck. The guard was pulled back against the cells, kicking out, struggling to breathe as the prisoner strangled him. With a loud snap, the guard fell to the ground, his neck at an odd angle. Elissa jerked back as the prisoner took the keys from the guard, opened the cell door, and dragged him inside.

             A few moments later, a man emerged from the cell, dressed in the guard’s armour. “I thank you for creating such distraction, stranger. I have been waiting days for the opportunity.” He had long, black hair that he pinned back from his face with two braids, and scruffy facial hair. “Do you think you could—” He paused, looking past Elissa at her companions. “Alistair? Is that you?”

             Alistair screwed up his face. “Who…? Wait, I do know you. You were at my Joining.” Alistair put a hand on Elissa’s shoulder as she watched the man warily, her hands twitching, ready to grab her daggers if need be. “He’s one of us. A Warden from Orlais. Jader, I think. Or was it Montsimmard? I’m afraid I don’t remember your name.”

             “I’m Riordan, senior Warden of Jader, but born and bred in Highever and glad to be home.”

             “What are you doing here?” asked Elissa, relaxing.

             “For the most part, attempting to hold my tongue. I was sent when we received no word from King Cailan as to the outcome at Ostagar. The King had invited all the Wardens of Orlais and their support troops to join him, then…nothing.”

             “How large of a force did you bring with you?”

             “We had two hundred Wardens and two dozen divisions of cavalry. The first we heard of Loghain’s edict was when everyone was turned back at the border. That was when the rumour reached us that Wardens were being blamed for the massacre. We finally decided it was safer to send someone alone, to learn how best to fight the Blight and this regime simultaneously. As a native Ferelden, I volunteered to make the crossing.”

             “But the Archdemon is nearly here! Are you telling me that we’ll have no help?”

             Riordan looked apologetic. “The other Wardens won’t risk their strength fighting Ferelden’s civil war. If they spend themselves against Loghain, there is truly no hope. They recall accounts of the first Blight, how many cities fell. If Ferelden is too foolish to save itself, at least we’ll be ready when the archdemon leads its forces further.”

             Something Ser Gilmore had once said came to mind. ‘A few villages are a small price to save the world.’ So, it’s true, she realised. Grey Wardens really will leave places to their doom if it means they will successfully defeat the Blight, no matter the cost.

             “Besides,” he continued, “I hear you haven’t been doing badly at raising an army yourself. But perhaps if the edict can be lifted… I will send a message as soon as we are gone from this place.”

             “Have you seen Howe?” she asked. “Do you know where he is?”

             “I saw him go into the dungeons. He may still be there.” He began hobbling towards the door, limping on his right leg. “I will seek you out later—after I find a good physician. Good luck…sister.”

             With that, Elissa turned on her heels and marched towards the dungeons, a dark and dank place with the smell of wet stone and blood. Screams for help filled the air, and Elissa came across a man tied up in one of the rooms, cuts and bruises decorating his naked body. Any enemy of Howe’s was a friend of hers, so she rushed to help him. He was not the most grateful when Elissa freed him from his chains, however.

             “Was this supposed to be a lesson?” he spat. “Did my father think it funny to leave me for so long before sending you?”

             Elissa cocked an eyebrow at him. “No offence, but I have no idea who you are.”

             The man blinked. “Then…my father didn’t send you?” He grabbed a cloth from nearby and tied it around his waist to cover himself. “I am Oswyn, son of Bann Sighard, of the Dragon’s Peak Bannorn. If you aren’t one of our soldiers, pray tell me, who should I be thanking for my rescue?”

             “I am Elissa, of the Grey Wardens.”

             “Then I have no question about why you would come, Warden, for it is your men who have suffered the most here. You have my heartfelt gratitude, and, I assume, the gratitude of the entire Dragon’s Peak Bannorn. If my father sent no one after me, I can only assume that he does not yet know the true colours of the snakes he has allied with. But if you talk to him, I’m certain he would offer you any reward you might ask.”

             Elissa looked to her companions. Perhaps we can use this to our advantage, their faces said, and she silently agreed. “Will your father side against Loghain at the Landsmeet?” she asked.

             Oswyn gasped. “So there is a Landsmeet after all? Howe said the Arl of Redcliffe was dead, and the Landsmeet called off. I swear, if there is any forum to speak out against Loghain, my father will be there.”

             Elissa expressed her thanks and stepped aside, allowing Oswyn to leave the place he was eager to see the back of.

             There were plenty more prisoners in the dungeons, most of whom Elissa freed as they had been wrongfully imprisoned for one reason or another. More and more of Howe and Loghain’s treachery emerged as they went on, further and further into the dungeons, until they reached the final door, where Howe was no doubt inside.

             Elissa stopped, as if she had walked into a wall. Her heart began to pound, adrenaline coursing through her, her body trembling. This is it, she thought. This is when I kill him. Memories of that fateful day flashed through her mind. Her mother’s tearful face. Her father’s weak and bloody form. Ser Gilmore’s brave last stand to protect the family he served. Her little nephew, Oren, full of life, laying lifelessly on the ground beside his mother, Oriana. A lump rose in Elissa’s throat, her eyes welling with tears as her heartbeat filled her ears. She kicked the door open, sending it flying into the wall with a bang, and forced her way in.

            

             Arl Howe was inside, surrounded by guards. At the back of the room, a twinkle caught Elissa’s eye. A mage stood leaning on his staff. That’s who we need, she realised. But first, I’ll deal with this traitor.

             Arl Howe grinned. “Well, look here! Bryce Cousland’s little spitfire, all grown up. Still playing the man. I thought Loghain made it clear that your pathetic family is gone and forgotten.”

             It was as though Howe had punched her in the gut as he spoke of her family. All air escaped her lungs, leaving her breathless. Her breathing deep and slow to control the anger coursing through her veins, she spoke with meaning in every word. “That night, when you betrayed my parents, I made them a promise,” she told him, taking a step towards him. He appeared fearless behind his small army of guards, but she had a feeling that if they were taken out of the equation, he would cower before her, with the amount of fury and hurt in her eyes. “I promised that I would take vengeance on you for everything you did. They are far from forgotten. Their memory brought me here.”

             Arl Howe laughed. “Your parents died on their knees. Your brother’s corpse rots in Ostagar, and his brat was burned on a scrap heap along with his Antivan whore of a wife.” He too took a step closer, safe behind his guards. “And what’s left? A fool husk of a daughter, likely to end her days under a rock in the Deep Roads. Even the Wardens are gone. You’re the last of nothing. This is pointless. You’ve lost.”

             Elissa grinned, a smile as sharp as daggers. “I know your game, Howe.” She readied the daggers on her back, gripping them tightly in both hands. “No shadows, no lies. Just you and me.”

             “There it is,” he snarled, pointing at her. “Right there. The dammed look in the eye that marked every Cousland’s success that held me back. It would appear that you have made something of yourself after all. Your father would be proud.” He readied an axe, engraved with the Howe sigil. “I on the other hand want you dead, more than ever.”

             “Not if I can help it.” Elissa threw one of her daggers towards him. He leapt out of the way, the blade whizzing past him. It hit the mage at the back of the room square in the chest, sending him spluttering to the floor, blood seeping out of his wound.

             A fight erupted around them. Elissa dodged arrows and blades and ran towards the mage, pulling out her dagger from his lifeless corpse. She turned to see Alistair, Leliana, and Wynne locked in combat with Howe’s guards, but Howe himself tried to hide behind a pillar. Elissa leapt to her feet and charged at him, blades flashing in the candle light. He cried out as she swung a dagger towards him with such force that if he hadn’t stepped back in time, it would have cut open his throat.

             “Face me, you coward!” Elissa shouted. “Face me without your guards to hide behind!”

             Howe swung at her with his axe, much faster than she had anticipated for an older gentleman. They became locked in battle, metal clashing against metal, blood splattering over the walls and floor with every cut they both achieved on the other’s skin. Elissa hissed as Howe caught her shin.

             “It’s too bad,” said Howe as she was down, crouched on the floor. “If only Nathaniel could be here to see what I’m about to do to you.”

             Nathaniel’s name made her chest clench uncomfortably. She stumbled to her feet. “I’m sure he’d be proud of his treacherous father for murdering an entire family because you were jealous of what we had,” she spat, wiping blood from her chin. “I agree, I wish he was here too, so he could watch me take off his father’s head.” She kicked him hard in the chest, sending him crashing into the wall behind him. Before he could recover, she brought her fist back and sent it straight into his jaw. With a sickening crunch, he collapsed to the ground, dropping his weapons. She kicked them aside as he reached out for them, and held him in place with a dagger to his throat.

             “NO!” he roared. “Someone help me!” But no one came. Elissa dared not look away from him, keeping her dagger firmly in place, but the sound of fighting around them had died out. A final thud of a body falling to the ground told her that the fight was over. They had won. “N-No…this cannot be.”

             “I’m afraid your time has come, Howe,” she said, her voice full of venom. “You will die for your crimes against Ferelden, and my family.”

             In a last bid of panic, Howe reached up and grabbed her dagger. His grip was strong, determined to pull it free from her grip, but he forgot about the second blade. She let go of the first, allowing him a moment to think he had won. He stood, readying it to fight for his life…

             Elissa twirled the dagger in her hand, readying her grip before sending it deep into Howe’s chest. He gasped, blood gurgling from his lips. He coughed and spluttered, spraying Elissa with blood, but she refused to look away as Howe collapsed to the ground, his armour wet and red.

             “M-Maker spit on you!” he barked. “I-I…deserved…more!”

             “You did,” she agreed. “You deserved to feel the pain my family felt before you killed them. I would have had you tortured like you tortured the son of a nobleman who knew the truth about Loghain. I would have made you watch as your family died before your eyes. Made you see the people you loved and care for be killed by someone you trusted.” She looked down at him as he fell back onto the ground weakly. “You deserved so much more pain, but be thankful I gave you a quick and merciful death.”

             Howe looked at her with hateful, pitiful eyes, before they closed for a final time, never to open again.

             Elissa dropped her dagger, sending it to the floor with a clatter. All the anger, hurt, pain, and adrenaline swirling around inside of her melted away, leaving her numb. She looked down at Howe’s body once more. “I hope I have avenged you, Mother and Father,” she said, hoping they could hear her, wherever they were.  She turned, facing her companions, who looked at her with mixed expressions. Awe, pride, and sadness.

             “Are you all right, my dear?” asked Wynne.

             Elissa nodded. “I fulfilled my promise.” She scooped up her blades and cleaned them of blood, slotting them back in their sheathes. “Now, let’s do what we set out to, yes? Defeat this Blight and rid the world of people like Howe, and Loghain.”

Chapter Text

9 – Elissa

And then, it was over. With the archdemon dead, the darkspawn horde quickly crumbled. Most fled back into the Deep Roads. They would remain a threat in the years to come, but the Blight had been ended before it had truly begun. Ferelden had been saved, and the entire kingdom rose up to joyously greet its new king.

             Alistair waved as the crowd gathered inside the throne room clapped and cheered for him, dressed in a set of golden, regal armour that had once belonged to his half-brother. “My friends,” he called, raising his hand for silence, “we are gathered to celebrate those responsible for our victory. Of those who stood against the darkspawn siege of Denerim, there is one in particular who deserves commendation.” He looked down from atop the steps leading to the throne to his companions, who had gathered at the base of the steps at the front of the crowd. His gaze landed on Elissa. “The one who led the final charge against the archdemon remains with us still. An inspiration to all she saved that day. Ladies and gentlemen, may I formally present my dearest friend, Warden Elissa Cousland.”

             The audience of nobles, knights, servants, and guards clapped even harder and whooped even louder as Elissa approached the new king, ascending the stairs to stand beside him. She looked into the beaming crowd ahead of her, giving them a little wave as gratitude for their thanks. Her eyes scanned the people calling her name, picking out familiar faces here and there that she had interacted with over the past year. A nobleman here, a noblewoman there, a towns guard…

             Her heart stopped, breath catching in her throat. By the base of the steps, just behind her friends, stood a man with the same chocolate-brown hair they shared with their father, a man she had not seen for over a year, thought to be dead. “Fergus,” she breathed, tears welling in her eyes. He’s alive! He smiled up at her, a proud look on his face.

             “As King,” said Alistair, regaining her attention, “I think it appropriate that I return the favour for saving Ferelden. I offer you a boon of your choice.”

             She looked back at the crowd to find Fergus. He was still standing there, watching her. So he wasn’t just a figure of her imagination. He was real after all. He hadn’t died. She closed her eyes as painful memories flashed before them. Her father, bleeding out from a heavy wound to the abdomen. Her mother cradling him in her arms, the grief on her face at having to say goodbye to Elissa, knowing it would likely lead to her death. Her nephew, Oren, dead on the ground, his life ended before it could truly begin. And his mother, another innocent, caught up in a family feud. Ser Gilmore, Old Nan, Brother Aldous, the servants, the maids, the guards… All the people she had lost that night flashed before her eyes, and when she opened them, she made her decision.

             “I ask that the Howe’s pay for what they did to my family,” she said, unable to hide the determination in her voice.

             Alistair nodded in agreement. “The Howes’ are hereby stripped of their titles and fortune, and will be investigated as to their involvement in the Highever attack. Highever itself is of course restored to your family.”

             Elissa’s eyes let slip a single tear of joy. She held back the urge to throw herself at Alistair, knowing it would not do well to start blubbing on his shoulder about how dear of a friend he was to her.

             “Namely, your brother Fergus,” Alistair continued, “since he was found safe and sound near the Korkari Wilds.” He gave Elissa a pat on the shoulder—though she could tell that he too was eager to embrace her, his arms twitching at his sides. He turned to address the room. “Let it also be known that the Arling of Amaranthine, once the land of Arl Howe, is now granted to the Grey Wardens. There, they can rebuild, following the example of those who went before them.”

             The crowd’s cheers died down as the announcement came to an end. Alistair took her aside for a brief moment alone. “So, what are your plans? I assume, with your brother here, you’ll remain in Ferelden?”

             She bit her lip, holding back a grin. “It’s not likely that I’ll be going anywhere any time soon. I think you’ll need my help,” she teased.

             Alistair chuckled. “Well, I didn’t want to come right out and say it…but I’m relieved you’ll be nearby.” He looked over his shoulder at the doors over the far side of the room. “There’s a group of Ferelden citizens outside waiting to get a look at their hero. I suggest you make at least a brief appearance before they storm the gate. Just tell the guard at the door when you’re ready.”

             “Thank you,” she said, chest bursting with emotion. “I can’t thank you enough for this. My family finally receives the justice they deserve.”

             “I hope it brings you peace now, my friend.” He gave her a quick embrace—quick enough that they wouldn’t both become blubbering messes—before giving her a gentle push towards the crowd.

             Elissa managed to reach the bottom step just before a huge mass of a person collided with her, wrapping his muscular arms around her small frame. “Oh, little sister, how happy I am to see you.” She fell into his embrace, finally allowing the tears to flow from her eyes, shielded from the many eyes of the room by his torso.

             When they finally pulled away from one another, he used his thumb to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “Look at you!” she said with a chuckle. “You haven’t changed a bit!”

              “Unlike you. When I heard my little sister was not only a Grey Warden, but also leading Ferelden into battle? I was surprised, to put it mildly.” He held two fingers beneath her chin, looking down at her with pride. “Father… he would have been so proud of you. I know I am. You’ve done good, Elissa.”

             “I knew I should have looked harder for you.”

             “I’m not sure you wouldn’t have just been wasting your time, to be honest. I never made it to the battle at Ostagar. We were still scouting in the Wilds when we were attacked by a party of darkspawn. Most of my men were killed. I woke up two weeks later in a Chasind hut, wounded and feverish. By the time I was able to sneak out of the Wilds, you were already marching to Denerim. I tried to get word to Highever. You can imagine what happened, I suppose.”

             Elissa’s heart dropped at the sadness in his eyes. “Brother, I’m so sorry about Oren and Oriana.”

             He sighed heavily. “Yes, I’m…trying not to think too much about them.” He shook his head, his face twisting into an angry snarl. “Howe was a greedy, traitorous bastard. I just wish I’d been there to help you kill him. At least Amaranthine now belongs to the Grey Wardens. There’s some justice in that, I think.”

             “Definitely,” Elissa agreed. “I brought vengeance upon their house after they almost destroyed ours.”

             “Have you heard from Nathaniel?”

             It was as if Fergus had reached into her chest and squeezed her heart. She flinched at the name, one she had not thought about for a long time. “N-Nathaniel? No, and I don’t expect to now.”

             “I bet he was involved. He was very eager to leave Highever when we travelled. Told me himself before we parted ways.”

             “If I ever see him again, I’ll kill him,” she swore. “I’ll make him pay.”

             “Anyway, enough about vengeance and death. The war is over now, and we are at peace. I need to go back to Highever. See if I can clean up the mess Howe made of it. I will see you soon, I hope?”

             “Of course you will. I’ll always come home whenever I can.”

             Fergus smiled. “Good. Highever won’t be the same without…” the smile slipped from his face, “…everyone around.” He pulled her into another embrace, resting his head on top of hers. “Take care of yourself, you hear? Or I’ll find you and nag you like Mother did until you’re ready to tear out your hair.”

             The both of them burst into laughter at the many memories of their mother having done just that. She looked up at her brother, thankful that she was no longer the last Cousland. Their family home was saved, restored to their rightful owners. True, nothing would be the same now without them, but it was a start. Elissa breathed easy knowing that their parents would be at ease now that Fergus would pick up the title of Teyrn of Highever. The Howes’ paid the price for their treachery, and Elissa could finally be at peace within herself—well, almost.

Chapter Text

10 – Nathaniel

Nathaniel leaned back in his chair beside the crackling fireplace, kicking his feet up onto the table in front of him. The Hanged Man had become a favourite of his since he had taken a trip here with his master, Ser Roldolphe. Although it was in Lowtown, he thought it the best tavern in Kirkwall. The ale was cheap, the people were nice enough, and he could resume his spot in the corner of the room every week with no one to disturb him as he wrote letters to Ferelden.

             He had not written any letters for several months, however. He had written to his father, and heard nothing—not that that was unexpected. His father rarely graced him with any replies to his letters, where he informed him of how he was getting on. He also wrote letters to Elissa, but he had heard nothing back from her either. Unease played on his mind. Either something is wrong, or they’re both ignoring me. But that could not be possible. Elissa always wrote back to him. He had double checked the addresses on the envelopes, all addressed to Cousland Castle in Highever, yet he had had no reply for a year.

             Perhaps it was due to the Blight that threatened to ravage the lands there. He was tempted to return home, to help in some way, but no one was allowed in or out of Ferelden, so he was forced to stay put in the Free Marches. It was over now, however, defeated by the Hero of Ferelden—whoever that was—and the place free of darkspawn. Perhaps I can schedule a visit soon, if they open their borders.

             “Ser,” said a voice beside him. Nathaniel looked up from his ale to see an elven messenger with a satchel over his shoulder, and an envelope in his hands. “Letter for you.”

             Nathaniel nodded his thanks, exchanging the letter for a few coins. When the messenger had left, he opened the letter, curiosity tingling over his skin. It was his first letter in months. I wonder who it’s from? He didn’t recognise the writing. It was too neat for Elissa’s messy handwriting, and too dainty to be his father’s. It was very official-looking.

 

Dear Nathaniel Howe,

We regret to inform you that your father, Arl Rendon Howe, is no longer with us. He died at the hands of the Hero of Ferelden, Grey Warden Elissa Cousland.

Due to his involvement with the betrayal of King Cailan, the murder of Teyrn Bryce Cousland, his wife, Eleanor Cousland, and their entire household, and his partnership with the traitor, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir in an attempt to rule Ferelden, your family’s titles and fortunes have been stripped from you. The Arling of Amaranthine, has been gifted to the Grey Wardens by King Alistair Therin.

We apologise for writing with upsetting news.

 

             It was as though the messenger had handed him a gigantic slap across the face. Nathaniel almost fell out of his chair, legs slipping down from the table in front of him. He ran a hand through his long, shoulder length hair, combing loose, brown strands back from his face. M-My father is…dead? And these words detailing his betrayal…were they true? Could he have actually done what these people in Ferelden had accused him of?

             He read the letter over again, pausing only after the first line. ‘He died at the hands of the Hero of Ferelden, Grey Warden Elissa Cousland.’ His breath caught in his throat. She…she killed him? She killed my father? His heart felt like someone had taken his bow and arrow and shot him with it, right in the chest. He didn’t know how to feel. All he felt was a huge swell of emotion in his chest that forced him to sit up, take deep breaths, and read the letter for a third time to take everything in.

             All his lands, titles, and fortunes were no longer his. His father had died, killed by the woman he loved. Grey Wardens had broken into the Howe family estate and slaughtered Rendon Howe for his treachery, and Vigil’s Keep had been seized by the crown and granted to his father’s murderers.

             “Boy, what’re you doin’ hanging around here for?” said a gruff, deep voice, like the sound a heavy rock makes when it echoes in the bottom of a large barrel. “You’re supposed to be up at my estate tendin’ the horses—” Ser Roldolphe paused at the look of utter shock on Nathaniel’s face. “Boy?”

             “I can no longer be your squire,” said Nathaniel, his voice flat. The letter shook as the hands holding it trembled. “I cannot speak of what has happened, but I am sure that in time you will learn of it. To save you embarrassment, I will leave your service and take my tainted name with me.” He rose from his chair and left the tavern, not looking back even after Ser Roldolphe called after him several times. He would never likely see the city of Kirkwall again, let alone his master, because he had a destination in mind that he would not come back from.

             I swear that I will bring vengeance upon the Grey Wardens, he said silently as he marched towards the nearest stables to acquire a horse.  Swear that you will all pay for what you did to my father, to my family!

***

Nathaniel stood outside the gates surrounding his old home, the sky above him black like ink. He looked through the iron bars up at the Keep that rose behind them. It was hardly recognisable it with all the foreign people walking about. People in blue and grey armour, with gleaming griffons on their chests. Grey Warden banners hung where the Howe family Sigil once was. There seemed to be no one from his father’s household here.

             My grandfather was a Grey Warden. Would he even recognise what this order has become?

             Nathaniel expertly leapt up into the air and vaulted over the wall beside the gates, falling into the shadows, navigating the paths behind buildings with familiarity.

             Would he weep at its dereliction? Or would he draw his blade, point it toward his enemy’s heart, and cry, “Enough”?

             He pulled himself up onto one of the outer buildings that had once been used to store spare pieces of armour. He was invisible beneath the night sky, his black cloak shielding him from guards’ eyes.

             I think I know. And I act, now, in his memory.

             His eyes met the Keep he had once called home. A deep sadness began to stir within him, before anger rushed into his veins, washing it away.

             Vigil’s Keep. This is my father’s estate—or was. Stripped from my family after the Blight. Granted to the Grey Wardens, who wasted no time filling it with their Orlesian filth.

             Nathaniel leapt down from the building and scurried along the walls, keeping to the shadows.

             The same damned Orlesians Father fought so hard to drive out. His lip would curl at the irony.

             Slipping past the guards protecting the entrance, he scaled the walls and up onto the battlements. Pressing his back against the cold stone, a guard walked past him, completely oblivious of Nathaniel beside him in the darkness. He knew this place like the back of his hand—and so he should, he grew up here. He knew all the best hiding spots, how to sneak round unnoticed.

             There will always be those who falter when they see the true face of war, when they reckon its true price. Not Rendon Howe.

             The guard stopped at the edge of a balcony to survey the area. Nathaniel watched him, the griffon glistening in the moonlight. His body shook with rage, a dagger slowly unsheathing on his belt.

             What were Father’s crimes? That he was a patriot? That his sword did too well the work of his nation?

             Nathaniel brought the dagger out to his side just as the guard turned around. Their eyes met. In an instant, swords flashed. Before the guard could yell, Nathaniel cracked him across the face with the pummel.

             I pray each night to be the half the man he was.

             The guard was knocked out cold, blood spurting from his broken nose. Nathaniel slipped in through an open window, into a deserted corridor where only a couple of guards stood chatting together, leaning up against the walls.

             The stories of his death put me ill at ease; they reek of petty manoeuvring, of courtly games. Of Orlesian treachery.

             Darting behind pillars, he slowly moved along the corridor.

             ‘Tis said he murdered the Couslands, and it may be so; but to what end? Their crimes must have been grave indeed, to earn such a fate.

             He jumped at the sound of swords unsheathing behind him. The two guards chased after him as Nathaniel raced up stairs and into a corridor full of very old family paintings that he was surprised to see were still hanging where he had last seen them.

             I am no snarling mabari, content to kill for sport.

             He pulled out his second blade, holding both out at the ready.

             I strike only when necessary.

             He ducked as one guard swung at him, and struck out at the other.

             I strike where it will be felt most keen.

             He sliced at one guard’s arm, and cut the throat of the other in a single twist.

             It is enough. I am the pinprick which carries the poison.

             As one guard lay bleeding to death, he kicked up at the other, his foot connecting with the man’s head, knocking him out cold.

             He strolled along the corridor until he found two portraits that made him pause. His own, where he had stood grudgingly for the painter, his discomfort clear in his face, beside his father’s portrait, who looked proud and like he should be there.

             I am here, Father. At long last, I am here. And this occupation ends tonight.

Chapter Text

11 – Elissa

With the death of the archdemon, the Blight was defeated. But the darkspawn did not simply disappear. Most of the hoard scattered North from Denerim towards the Coastlands, and there fractured into warring tribes. The region fell into chaos as the darkspawn emerged from beneath the lands to terrorise the countryside.

             As the new Warden Commander of Ferelden, it was Elissa’s job to grow and re-establish the order of Grey Wardens in Ferelden at Vigil’s Keep in the Arling of Amaranthine, that once belonged to Arl Rendon Howe, and deal with the new darkspawn threat. Upon arrival, it seemed it would be more difficult than she anticipated, however.

             As soon as she arrived, she could sense trouble. Screams pierced the air, blood splattered thr ground. The keep was overrun with the last thing anyone expected, slaying every man and woman in sight. Darkspawn.

             “This isn’t a Blight,” said Mhairi, an eager recruit still awaiting her Joining, as the pair entered through the front gates, stepping over the body of a rotting darkspawn. “How could they be so organised? I don’t understand.”

             Elissa furrowed her brow in thought. “Perhaps something else is leading them,” she said, a trickle of fear running down her back at the suggestion.

             “Other than an archdemon, you mean? Frightening thought.”

             They made their way inside, fighting through darkspawn stragglers that had wandered too far away from their group, and into the inner courtyard. Elissa had only been here a couple of times, on visits to the Howe’s with her father and brother. It was not Cousland Castle, but it had a very homey feel too it. An old and ancient Keep with a historical family residing within. Now, it was broken and bloody, scattered with corpses, both Grey Warden and darkspawn.

             “Unbelievable! The keep has been overwhelmed!” said Mhairi as they jogged towards the gates on the other side. “How did the Wardens not sense the darkspawn coming? I don’t understand it!”

             Mhairi flew into a state of panic, twittering around like a nervous bird. Elissa stepped into her Commander role and placed a hand on her arm to steady the girl. “How many Wardens are supposed to be here?”

             “Not many. A dozen, perhaps? There are other soldiers who came with them, however.” She looked down at the corpses nearby. “For the darkspawn to have ambushed the keep so effectively—I didn’t know they were capable of such a thing!”

             “We have to keep moving,” Elissa ordered, holding both daggers out at the ready.

             They moved through the buildings, slaying any darkspawn in their way. Mhairi ran through a door ahead of them, Elissa close behind—but quickly yanked the young recruit back as a wall of flames erupted before them. Screams of pain and the smell of burning, rotting flesh filled the air. Bodies fell to the ground with a thump, and the flames extinguished. Behind them stood a man with long, blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, a large earring in his right ear, and a smug grin on his face.

             The man shrugged. “Er… I didn’t do it.”

             Elissa looked past him to see dead Templars among the darkspawn corpses.

             “Oh, don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “I’m not broken up about them dying, to be perfectly honest. Biff there made the funniest gurgle when he went down.” He pointed back to a dead Templar. He extended a hand towards her. “I am Anders, at your service—mage and wanted apostate.”

             “What is an Apostate doing at Vigil’s Keep?” Elissa asked, though she shook his hand all the same.

             “You weren’t here when we arrived. I’m sure I would have remembered such a lovely woman as yourself,” he said with a charming smile.

             Elissa fought back a snigger, biting down on her bottom lip. Anders took it as interest, however, and shot her a wink.

             “We were just stopping here on our way back to the tower,” he said. “Just a short rest, they said, and now they’re dead. Such a shame,” he said, no remorse in his words. “Look, I suppose I could help you with the rest of these darkspawn… or you could just let me go. They’ll send more Templars to find me eventually. They always do.”

             “Well, so far there’s only two of us,” said Elissa. “We could certainly use the help.”

             “Then, you have it.” He smoothed down his robes. “I can’t say I’m fond of these darkspawn, even though I’m no Grey Warden. Let’s deal with them now, and we can discuss what comes later…later.”

             An explosion in the inner courtyard shook the building, almost knocking the group off their feet. Elissa rushed out through the door they had come through to see bits of darkspawn bodies flying through the air in every direction. A dwarf quickly fled from the scene. Elissa made chase after him, hoping he could lead her to some person of authority here, hopefully still alive. The party darted into another building to find a red-haired dwarf swinging a great-axe twice the size of him in perfect arcs, brutally decapitating darkspawn attempting to surround him.

             “Oghren!” Elissa cried.

             The dwarf turned and gave her a cheerful wave. After defeating the last of his foes, he jogged over to the steps, leaning casually against the wall, as if he had not been fighting a large group of darkspawn on his own. “There yeh are! When these darkspawn showed up, I thought, ‘just yeh wait until the new commander get’s ‘ere and you’ll all be spitting teeth out of your arses.’ Followed the screaming, and sure enough, here you are. Good on yeh!”

              Elissa burst into hearty laughter, a smile spread widely across her face at the sight of an old friend. She rushed over to the dwarf and gave him a quick squeeze. He gave her an embarrassed grunt in return.

             “Where’ve yeh been? I’ve been here for almost a week, now.”

             “I was delayed, had business with Al—with the King.” It had taken her several months to get used to calling Alistair Your Highness and His Majesty, the King. He insisted that she continue to call him by his name, but if he made allowances for one person, everyone else would start doing it, and they would lose all respect for him. “What in Thedas are you doing here?”

             “Thought I might try my hand at becoming a bona fide Grey Warden.”

             Mhairi wrinkled her nose at the dwarf. “He was here when I left to fetch you, Commander. I can’t believe the Wardens didn’t kick him out.”

             Oghren’s beady eyes flicked between Elissa and Anders. “Who’s the mage? New boyfriend? Should I leave you guys alone?”

             Elissa spluttered. “No!”

             Anders however, chuckled. “Wow. A dwarf that smells like a brewery. You never see that anywhere.”

             “Huh. A mage comedian,” said Oghren. “I thought those normally died young.”

             Elissa cut in between the two. “Oghren, there are plenty of risks to joining the Grey Wardens you know. It’s not as simple as joining a chess club.”

             Oghren scoffed. “There are risks to getting up in the morning. I piss on risk.”

             “I’m sure risk appreciates it,” mutters Anders.

             “Well,” said the dwarf, heaving his great-axe over his shoulder, “we can talk about that later. Right now, there’s more darkspawn around in sore need of a beheading!”

             Elissa nodded in agreement, gesturing for the others to follow her. They made their way through buildings and more courtyards of darkspawn, their numbers frighteningly larger than Elissa had believed. It reminded her of Denerim, when the town had been ransacked and set alight by darkspawn. This place had received some of the same treatment.

             Moving towards the central building, they took a corridor that appeared to be free of darkspawn—for the moment. But as they followed it, they found a man propped up against the wall, supressing a heavy wound to the abdomen, blood flowing over his hands. Elissa’s heart jolted, her mind momentarily taken back to her father’s death.

             “M-Mhairi?” said the man.

             “Rowland!” Mhairi cried, rushing to his side. She knelt down beside him. “Commander, Rowland was a knight recruited from Denerim, like me. We must do something for him!”

             Elissa had seen this wound before, and she knew there was nothing they could do for him. He had only minutes to live, if that.

             “T-The Commander?” he gurgled, blood dripping down his chin.

             “I’m sorry I didn’t come any sooner,” she replied.

             “We only h-had a moment’s warning b-before they were on us, C-Commander. The seneschal ordered a c-counter-attack, but they c-came out of nowhere! T-There’s one with them, a d-darkspawn who talks; his m-magic is powerful.”

             Oghren frowned. “A talking darkspawn? The lad must be delirious.”

             “T-There’s something in…in my b-blood!” he grunted, curling in on himself. “It h-hurts.”

             Elissa knelt down beside him too. “Where is the talking darkspawn?”

             He tilted his head to the right, further down the corridor. “I-It went that way, after… the seneschal…” His head fell back against the wall, and his eyes shut.

             Mhairi bowed her head. “I will avenge you, Rowland. I swear it.”

             Elissa pulled Mhairi to her feet and they rushed along the corridor, through a door, and out onto the battlements, where the seneschal was being held by a knife against his throat on his knees by two darkspawn. One held him steady, brutish and savage, but the other stood tall and mighty, like a human, looking out over the keep.

             “There it is!” cried Mhairi, and the creature turned to face them.

             “C-Commander,” whimpered the seneschal, looking pleadingly at her.

             “Capture the Grey Warden,” said the human-like creature. Elissa jerked back in shock. It does speak! “These others, they may be killed.”

             Elissa threw her blade at the darkspawn holding the seneschal by the throat. It hit the creature squarely in the head, releasing the seneschal. Elissa rushed to his side as the others fought against the talking darkspawn with blades and magic, pushing it back until it fled in an attempt to prolong its life.

             “Seneschal, are you all right?” she asked, helping him to his feet.

             “Commander, I owe you my life, thank you.” He wandered over to the edge of the battlements. “Hmm… soldiers on the road. It seems we have more company.”

             Elissa stood beside him to see a small army of Templars marching through the front gates. “We’d better get down there to greet them.”

             They rushed through the halls until they reached the front courtyard, to see yet another familiar face at the front of the marching men. Elissa bent her knee and bowed her head in respect, the others following suit.

             “It looks like I’ve arrived a bit late. Too bad. I rather miss the whole darkspawn-killing thing. I wanted to come and give the Wardens a formal welcome. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. What’s the situation?”

             Everyone rose to their feet as Alistair gestured for them to stand. He looked no different to a year ago, with only the addition of a couple of dark circles beneath his eyes. The stress of being king was beginning to take its toll.

             “What darkspawn remained have fled, your Majesty,” said the seneschal. “The Grey Wardens who had arrived from Orlais appear to be either dead or…missing.”

             “Missing? As in taken by the darkspawn? Do they even do that?”

             “I do not know, your Majesty. I know only that we cannot account for all the Wardens.”

             “I see.” He then looked to Elissa. “I’m glad to see you are well,” he said, giving her a pat on the arm. “You have quite the task ahead of you. Really, I’d like to help you fight darkspawn, but you’re on your own for the moment.”

             “Hey! What am I? Chopped nug livers?” Oghren grunted. “I came here to join the Grey Wardens, and from the looks of it, you could use the extra hands! Where’s the giant cup? I’ll gargle and spit!”

             “You’re supposed to swallow, you know,” said Elissa.

             “Heh. That’s what I always say…”

             Mhairi sighed. “I suppose all are welcome at this dire time.”

             “Joining the wardens, eh?” said Anders. “Well, good luck with that.”

             A Templar jumped forward. “King Alistair! Your Majesty, beware! This man is a dangerous criminal!”

             Alistair waved away her concern. “Oh, the dwarf is a bit of an arse, but I wouldn’t go that—”

             Anders rolled his eyes. “She means me.”

             “This is an apostate who we were in the process of bringing back to the Circle to face justice!” said the Templar.

             Anders scoffed. “Oh, please. The things you people know about justice would fit into a thimble. I’ll just escape again, anyhow.”

             “Never!” the Templar barked. “I will see you hanged for what you’ve done here, murderer!”

             Anders blinked. “Murderer? But those Templars were—oh, what’s the use? You won’t believe me anyhow.”

             Alistair interjected. “It seems there isn’t much to say. Unless… you have something to add, Commander?”

             Elissa caught the King’s eye, that twinkled with youthful mischief. She fought back a grin. “I hereby recruit this mage into the Grey Wardens,” she said.

             “What? Never!” cried the Templar.

             Alistair smiled. “I believe the Grey Wardens still retain the right of conscription, no? I will allow it.”

             The Templar scrunched her face up with anger. “If…if your Majesty feels it is best,” she said bitterly, before turning on her heels and marching off.

             “Me? a Grey Warden?” said Anders. “I guess that will work…”

             “Then, if you have everything under control, I will need to take my leave,” said Alistair. “Looks like you have quite the task ahead of you. For once, I don’t envy you.”

             Elissa chuckled. “You can say that again. None of the Orlesian Wardens made it, but we have a few survivors so I’ll have to replenish the Wardens with recruitment.”

             Alistair pulled her into an embrace. “It’s good to see you again. Come back to Denerim soon.”

             “I will, once I’ve finished cleaning up this mess,” Elissa joked. “Goodbye, your Majesty.”

             After the King and the Templars had left, they gathered the survivors. To their surprise, more than a few people had survived the attack. Mostly servants, however, but there were plenty of soldiers eager to help. They rounded up the dead and ensured all the bodies had been burned, and Elissa, Anders, Mhairi, and Oghren made their way onto the main hall, where the seneschal had gathered all the necessary ingredients for the Joining ritual. The shining, giant goblet sat on a table, full of darkspawn blood and magic.

             “Right now,” said the seneschal, “there is only one living grey warden assigned to all of Ferelden. That should be rectified.”

             “Agreed,” said Elissa. “Those who are to take their Joining, form a line in front of us.”

             Anders, Oghren, and Mhairi stood together, a mixture of worry and excitement on their faces.

             The seneschal took the goblet in his hands. “The time has come for us to begin the Joining. The Commander shall speak the words that have been said since the first.” He bowed his head, and gestured for Elissa to continue.

             She had never had to say the words before, but she remembered them clear as day from the day she had Joined the Order. “Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten and that one day we shall join you.”

             The seneschal held the cup towards Oghren. “From this day forth, Oghren, you are a Grey Warden.”

             Oghren grabbed the cup eagerly, as if it were a cup of ale, and took a large swig. Elissa tensed beside the seneschal as he stepped back. Please live, please live, Elissa silently prayed. The last thing she wanted was to see her friend die.

             “BURRRP!” Oghren belched. “Not bad,” he said, eyes rolling into the back of his head, before he collapsed. Elissa bit back a laugh.

             The seneschal then offered the cup to Anders. “From this moment forth, Anders, you are a Grey Warden.”

             Anders eyed it warily. “So we need to drink darkspawn blood… that’s it?”

             “Yes, that’s it,” the seneschal said bluntly.

             Anders took the cup. “Well, all right, but if I wake up two weeks from now on a ship bound for Rivain in nothing but my smallclothes and a tattoo on my forehead, I’m blaming you.” The mage took a deep breath before he too took a sip.

             Elissa watched closely as the mage began to sway, his eyes rolling into his head before he fell to the ground beside Oghren. Another survivor, great. Let’s make three out of three.

             The seneschal finally offered the cup to Mhairi. “From this moment forth, Mhairi, you are a Grey Warden.”

             The young recruit almost snatched the cup out of the seneschal’s hands in eagerness. “I have awaited this moment!” she said, before taking the final sip. But only moments after the blood touched her lips, she coughed and spluttered, clutching her throat, eyes wide with fear. Her knees gave way and she fell to the ground, gasping for air, before she rolled onto her back and laid still, never to move again.

             “I’m sorry, Mhairi,” said Elissa, kneeling down beside the girl, closing her eyes. “May the Maker watch over you, now.”

             Elissa ordered for the two new Wardens to be taken to the infirmary, and for Mhairi to have her body burned in the courtyard. She didn’t know what to expect exactly. It was her first official Joining ritual, but not everyone survived their Joining, and she should have anticipated that not all of them would have made it.

             What’s done is done. Now, I have to help rebuild this place.

Chapter Text

12 – Elissa

Elissa strolled about Vigil’s Keep’s courtyard, pride swelling in her chest. The place was beginning to look like a proper fortress again. Bodies had been cleared away and burned, blood was cleaned from the stone, and Grey Warden banners hung proudly from its walls. Anders, and Oghren had been provided with their uniforms and were spotted chatting away beside a statue of Andraste, looking up at the woman and laughing at something the other had said about it. Elissa rolled her eyes at the pair and continued on her way back towards the keep, when someone called her.

             “Warden-Commander! Ser!”

             Elissa turned to see a young soldier jog over to her. “Yes?”

             “Thought you should know, a while back they caught a thief in the vigil,” they said. “Took four Wardens to capture him. Gave one of the Wardens a black eye, he did. Half-joking, they said he might make a good recruit.”

             Elissa tilted her head, curious. “Where is this thief now?”

             “He’s in the dungeon, ser.”

             “Thank you for informing me,” she said, dismissing the young soldier. She turned on her heels and walked in the opposite direction and into the dungeons below the keep. Inside was a row of cells with metal bars keeping their occupants locked inside. Except today there was only one person inside a single cell.

             “Ah, Commander! Good thing you’re here!” said a guard. He bowed politely, before gesturing to the cell behind him. “This one here’s been locked up three nights now. Good men died while this one was protected in his cell.”

             Elissa looked closer at the person sat on the floor of the cell. Long hair pulled back from his face with a braid, silver, steel-like eyes… Elissa’s whole body froze, her eyes widening.

             “He won’t give his name,” the guard continued, unaware of Elissa’s discomfort. “All I know is he was caught poking around the estate in the middle of the night. I’d say he was just a thief, but it took four Wardens to capture him. The seneschal said his fate is up to you, ser. Technically, all the man’s guilty of is theft. But who knows what else he might have come here to do?”

             Elissa reminded herself to breathe, taking slow, deep breaths to keep her exterior calm. “Leave me to speak with him.”

             “As you wish, Commander. I’ll tell the seneschal you came. He’ll want to know what you decide to do with this man.” The guard bowed once more before he left, closing the dungeon doors behind him.

             Elissa approached the bars, the man inside sneering up at her. “If it isn’t the great hero, conqueror of the Blight and vanquisher of all evil,” he said dryly.

             “Nathaniel,” she replied, coldly.

             “Murderer,” he spat, getting to his feet, his face level with hers behind the bars. “I’d have never taken you for a killer, Elissa.”

             “That’s Commander, to you.”

             “Oh yes…risen up through the ranks to a high level position within the fabled Grey Wardens. How many other innocent people did you murder to get to where you are now?”

             Elissa stared into the eyes of the man before her. They expelled anger, hurt, loss. But his words were sharp like a blade, and they cut into Elissa’s cold exterior. “Your father deserved everything he got,” she replied. “I only wish I had made him suffer before shoving my blade through his heart, but I had a country to save.”

             “So you feel no remorse for destroying my family?”

             “No,” she said bluntly. “Not after yours destroyed mine.”

             “Your family was going to sell us out to the Orlesians!”

             “I suppose your father told you that rubbish.”

             “How could he? A Grey Warden stole into his estate and slaughtered him before I could even talk to him. Of all the people to betray my family, I didn’t think it would be you.”

             “I didn’t betray anyone. I avenged my family after you and your father killed them.”

             Nathaniel flinched, as if she had reached through the bars and hit him. “Me? If you’re suggesting I had any part in what my father was planning to do, that is completely untrue. I had no idea.”

             Elissa crossed her arms over her chest. She was allowing this to get personal, rather than treating him as an enemy of the Wardens. The anger that she had pushed down for so long started bubbling to the surface. “Why don’t I believe you? When you so conveniently left before the massacre began.”

             “Why should you? You’ve killed my father, stole my family’s estate, and you’re probably going to kill me too!” he yelled. He quickly, regained himself, taking a step back from the bars. “Look, I had no idea what was going to happen to your family, or why Father did what he did. If I had known…I don’t know what I would have done.”

             Elissa dropped her arms to her sides and looked him dead in the eye. “I may have killed your father, but I didn’t slaughter your entire household,” she growled. “I didn’t make you watch as people you’ve known your whole life died before your eyes, protecting you. I didn’t force you to flee for your life. I had to make a new start for myself after I lost everything I held dear. It’s only thanks to the Maker that my brother survived to pick up our father’s title.” She stopped herself before she could spit venomous words at him, taking slow breaths before asking, “What are you doing here?”

             “I came here…” He sighed, and began pacing inside his cell. “I thought I was going to try to kill you. To lay a trap for you. But then I realised I just wanted to reclaim some of my family’s things.” He stopped, looking at the floor. “It’s all I have left.”

             “Why should I allow that? After what your father did.”

             “It shouldn’t affect my whole family,” Nathaniel retorted. “The Howe’s have been disgraced, those of us left anyway. It’s all thanks to you. And now you get to decide my fate. Ironic, isn’t it?”

             Bitterness covered her tongue. “Your family only has itself to blame for its troubles.”

             “The Howes served Ferelden for twelve generations. My ancestors served under King Calenhad!” He shook his head. "And now it’s all lost.”

             “Since when do you care about your father?” she said. “You never liked him.”

             “It doesn’t mean I’m happy that he’s dead!” he barked. “You argued with your brother on a daily basis when you were young. Would you have been happy if I had slit his throat?”

             “Only if he’d murdered an entire family who did nothing to deserve it.”

             They fell into silence then, avoiding one another’s eyes. She stepped back from the cell and turned her back on him, taking a minute to soak everything up. Nathaniel claimed he had nothing to do with her family’s murder. Was that true? Or was he just saying that to save his own neck? She could not be sure. His anger at her for avenging her family made a part of her weep. She had never wanted him to look at her like that. Even with the anger she had towards him, it hurt to see how much he seemed to hate her now.

             “Do you really despise me that much?” she asked, without turning around.

             Nathaniel said nothing in reply for a few moments, as if he were trying to find the words. She turned around to see him struggling. “Bloody darkspawn,” he cursed. “If it weren’t for the Blight, maybe Father wouldn’t have…done what he did. But I can’t do anything about that, can I? Not with you and the Grey Wardens, here in my home!” He exhaled loudly. “Just go ahead and do whatever it is you’re going to do with me already.”

             “You didn’t answer my question.”

             He stared at her, looking straight into her eyes. “I don’t know.”

             Elissa watched him thoughtfully. It was true, what he had said, that his fate lay in her hands. What should I do with him? For years she had thought about this moment, when she would finally see him again. But now it had come…she was unsure. Unease tingled over her skin like ants. Do I want him dead? His words had confused her. Was he being truthful? She killed Rendon Howe because she knew for a fact that he had killed her family. But Nathaniel… Her heart jolted at the thought of killing him. Could I do it? Again, she was unsure. But the feelings she had buried for so long began to surface, and emotion tightened her throat.

             The door to the dungeons opened and the guard returned, followed by the seneschal. “I brought the seneschal here for you, Commander.”

             She cleared her throat to stop her voice breaking. “Thank you, that will be all,” she said, dismissing the guard.

             The seneschal moved to stand beside her. “I see you’ve spoken to our guest. Quite the handful, isn’t he? Have you decided what’s to be done with him?”

             “Did you know this was Nathaniel Howe?” she asked.

              “A Howe?” he said, taking another look at the man inside the cell. “It figures that they would turn up again. The Howes are implacable enemies, Commander.”

             She nodded, returning her gaze to Nathaniel. She thought long and hard as she watched him glare back at her, huffing at how long she was taking to decide, but in the end, she thought of something that would perhaps allow him to be on equal terms with her suffering. “I wish to invoke the Right of Conscription.”

             Nathaniel spluttered. “You what?

             Even the seneschal turned to her, surprised. “I’m sorry, Commander. The Right of Conscription…on the prisoner?”

             “No!” Nathaniel protested. “Absolutely not! Hang me, first!”

             Elissa could not wipe away a smirk that appeared on her own face. “Did I say I was giving you a choice?”

             Nathaniel scoffed. “I can’t decide if this is a vote of confidence or punishment.”

             The seneschal cleared his throat awkwardly. “An…interesting decision, Commander,” he said, before turning to Nathaniel, who looked positively outraged. “Come with me, ser. We’ll see if you survive the Joining.”

             Nathaniel was released from his cell, avoiding Elissa’s gaze, and escorted upstairs into the Keep’s main hall. The seneschal prepared the Cup, and Elissa spoke the words that were said before every Joining.

             “From his moment forth, Nathaniel Howe, you are a Grey Warden,” he said, and offered Nathaniel the cup.

             Nathaniel inhaled through bared teeth. “The moment of truth…” he muttered before grudgingly taking the cup.

             As he brought it to his lips, however, Elissa felt a pang of guilt. Did I do the right thing? He could die. Do I want that? Seeing him again, here in the flesh after so long, was difficult. She was unsure how to feel. Her heart ached, and yet, at the same time, she wanted to hit him. Did he mean it when he said he knew nothing of his father’s plans? If he had, she would’ve been seriously mistaken, blaming him undeservedly. But what was done was done, and she had to face up to the consequences of her actions.

             He drank the liquid inside, almost gagging at the taste, before his eyes rolled into his head and he collapsed. Elissa knelt down to check his pulse, and found a gentle thudding beneath her fingers. “He lives.”

Chapter Text

13 – Nathaniel

Nathaniel’s eyes opened with a flutter. He groaned as he gained consciousness. His body ached from head to toe, and he felt a strange thrum in his veins that was sure had not been there before.

             “Ugh… Am I dead?” he wondered aloud, resting a palm on his forehead.

             “No. You’re alive, for now,” said a voice.

             Nathaniel looked to his left with blurry vision to see a woman sitting in a chair beside his bed. He blinked several times to clear his sight and recognised the figure sitting beside him. “Came to see if I’d died, eh?” he said, sitting up. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

             Elissa rolled her eyes as she looked away from him. “I would much rather you live,” she said. “We need all the Wardens we can get after the attack here.”

             “So now I’m to become a part of your little cult.”

             Elissa sniffed. “Well, I’m in charge of this little cult, so you’ll refer to me as Commander from now on.” She rose from her chair. “Your uniform is on the end of your bed. You will wear it at all times, when on duty. You have the rank of recruit and will answer to me.”

             It was as though her voice was trudging through thick sludge before it reached his brain, slurred and foggy. “Anything else?” he asked, pushing hair out of his eyes.

             She looked at him seriously. “Behave yourself here and you’ll do well for yourself. You can start again, make a new life for yourself away from your family name. I’ve given you that chance, so don’t waste it.” Then she turned on her heels and marched out of the room.

             Nathaniel rubbed his eyes to wake himself up, and took in his surroundings. He was in what he was sure used to be a bedroom in his family home. Now it had been turned into a room for several members, a row of single beds lined up against each side of the room. He sat in one in the furthest corner of the room, which he assumed was now his bunk.

             He grumbled as he swung his legs over the side of the bed, holding his thick and heavy head in his hands.

             “So, you’re the new recruit, eh?” said another voice, one he didn’t recognise. It almost made him jump off the bed in a fright. Across the room, sprawled across his own bunk, his feet up where his pillow should have been and his head at the other end, a blond man with a pony tail and large earring in one ear, wearing the same blue uniform that lay at the end of Nathaniel’s bed, laid on his back, his head hanging off the edge of the bunk, looking at him upside down. On his chest sat a ginger cat, purring loudly as the man scratched him behind his ears. “So, there’s four of us now! Our little band is growing by the day!”

             “Who’re you supposed to be?” Nathaniel asked, although he regretted it the moment the words left his lips.

             “Anders, at your service!” said the man. “I’d get up and shake your hand but I’m rather comfy here with Ser-Pounce-A-Lot, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just give you a wave.”

             Nathaniel grunted, before taking a look at his armour, holding it in his hands. It was silver and blue, made of leather and chain-mail, with brown gloves and boots, a hood, and a silver griffon blazoned on the chest plate. It was newly made, the blue royal and bright, the silver glistening like a new sword. He should have felt honour at holding such a masterpiece, but instead he felt bitterness, and threw it back down on the bed.

             Why did I bother coming back to Ferelden? He’d gotten himself into a right mess here, now bound to an Order he despised, who had taken his home, killed his father. Now he was a part of it. Oh Maker, you know how to mess with people

             “I didn’t catch your name, friend!” said Anders.

             “Nathaniel,” he replied, leaving off his surname. Anders hadn’t given him his, so why should he hand his over?

             “So, Nathaniel. Nathan. Nate, can I call you Nate—”

             “No,” he said sharply. That was what Elissa used to call me…before…

             “Fine, Nathaniel then. I’ve been tasked with showing you around the place and helping you settle in—though goodness knows why, I’ve only been a Warden for four days, but I’m liking it so far. All the men and women watching you adoringly as you strut about the place in your fancy armour, it’s a dream come true.”

             Nathaniel frowned at him. “You don’t seem to be taking this very seriously.”

             “Nah,” said Anders, waving an unconcerned hand in the air. “I’m only really here to avoid the Templars locking me up again. I’m free—well, freer—with the Grey Wardens than I was as a Circle Mage so I’ll take all the little victories I can get.” He lifted a hand into the air, and little flames danced around his fingers as he wiggled them. Ser-Pounce-A-Lot meowed, jumping up to try and swat at the flames. Anders rolled off the bed, placing the cat down on his pillow, skipped across the room and flopped down on the bed beside Nathaniel. “Well, get dressed then. I want to show you around before dinner. I’m not missing Oghren’s drinking antics. It’s like dinner and a show!”

             Nathaniel looked to his uniform. I guess I have little choice in the matter. Anders left the room so he could change. He pulled on his uniform and shuffled over to a nearby mirror hung on the wall. He looked so different. He looked…heroic, like a figure out of a story book, out of history. It gave him a sense of pride, of courage, to take on the day. He threw his old clothes on the bed and marched out of the room to find Anders leaning up against the wall outside.

             “I don’t need you to show me around my own home,” Nathaniel muttered, before walking away down the corridor.

             “Your home?” asked Anders, jogging to keep up with him. “That means you’re a Howe, right? Oh… No wonder the Commander was so angry with you! I see. This is going to be interesting.”

             “There’s nothing interesting about it.” He tried to lose the mage by darting down several corridors, but he stuck to Nathaniel’s side like glue. “Seriously, beat it, mage. I don’t need you.”

             “Not so friendly!” Anders teased. “Well, Mr-I-don’t-need-anyone, I’ll leave you to it. But if you hadn’t noticed, your family doesn’t live here anymore. Things have changed. If you get lost, give me a shout.” Anders gave him another wave before strolling away into a nearby room.

             Nathaniel pursed his lips together in annoyance. The mage was right. He recognised nothing about this place now. As he explored the keep, he discovered that it was littered with Grey Warden memorabilia. Banners, uniforms, armour, weapons, books, and tapestries. Nothing about this place said that the Howe’s had even lived here, let alone that it had been their home for generations. This place should have felt like home, but now it felt strange and foreign. Even the people were different. He recognised none of the staff here. Only a maid here, a servant there, but most of them were foreign, and Orleisan.

             He walked out into the courtyard, where yet again there was no one he recognised. It was like someone had dumped him in the middle of the city, with no friends or family. He felt utterly alone, but tried not to let it show on his stoic face. He held himself tall to ensure he looked as intimidating as he wanted to feel, and people avoided him, just as he wanted.

             He found a bench that had not been destroyed or carted away, no doubt to some rubbish dump where the rest of his family’s belongings were, and sat himself upon it. Looking at grounds around him, it made anger boil in his belly. They could have left a painting or two, to show who they took this keep from. But it seemed as though the Wardens were too proud to do such a thing.

             A glint of armour caught his eye. He looked over towards the stairs leading up to the keep’s entrance to see Elissa descending them, a Warden messenger handing her little pieces of parchment as they talked. She paid him her full attention, a lowly recruit who was many ranks beneath her. It surprised him a little. She had shown Nathaniel nothing but discontent, but with others she appeared kind. He studied her more closely, after not seeing her for several years. She was no longer soft and pretty, a gentle soul with a fiery heart. She was older and wiser, stern and strong. Still beautiful, he hated to admit, but she was beautiful in a different way now. She had clearly seen several battles, little scars decorating patches of her skin. She had a prominent scar on her chin just below her bottom lip, and one that ran along the right side of her jaw. Where it used to flow freely down her back, her chocolate-brown hair was plaited and twisted up into a more practical bun at the back of her head, though a few wispy pieces escaped and framed her face. She became the warrior she always wanted to be…but at what cost? My father’s head?

             Anger spread through his veins, making his hands tremble. He could not believe the news that she had killed his father at first, but now, seeing her in the flesh, he was beginning to believe it. She looked capable of that now. Something within her had changed. He should have been overjoyed to see her again after all this time, but all he could think about when he looked at her was how Rendon Howe was dead at her hands, and she showed no remorse for it. Nathaniel didn’t always get on with his father. They were butting heads more often than not, but he still loved the man, even admired him.

             Thinking about his family made the anger regress a little, sorrow taking its place. I am fatherless…but am I truly alone? Where was his sister, Delilah, and his brother, Thomas? Were they alive? He had had no word from them whilst in the Free Marches. He had hoped to find them here, at their family home, but they were nowhere to be seen.

             Before he knew what he was doing, his feet marched themselves over to Elissa. “May I have a word?” he growled.

             Elissa did not remove her eyes from the pieces of parchment in her hands. “Address me correctly and I’ll consider it.”

             Nathaniel bit back his anger, his lips pursed. “May I have a word, Commander?” he said, forcing each word out in an attempt to stay civil.

             Finally, she looked up at him. “I have a few minutes before I must meet with the seneschal.” She handed the messages over to the Warden recruit and ordered him to take it to a Mistress Woolsely. “Is it important?” she asked Nathaniel.

             “It is.”

             She gestured for him to follow her. As they walked, Nathaniel noticed others react to her presence. They either gawped in awe, or saluted their respect. She smiled at each and every one of them, acknowledging them all. Nathaniel glared at them. How can they respect her? She’s a murderer.

             She led him up the stairs and into a private study, where his father used to spend many a day locked away inside. All the books had been removed, however, and Grey Warden novels had taken their place. The sight made him rub the back of his neck, tension building in his muscles.

             She took a seat behind his father’s desk, in front of a Grey Warden banner hanging on the wall behind her, and gestured to the seat opposite her. “Sit.”

             Nathaniel sat down, his hands in fists. Neither person said anything for a few moments. He looked up from his lap to see her frowning at him curiously. “What do you need to talk to me about, recruit?”

             His lips snarled at the term recruit. “Don’t call me that,” he spat.

             “Why? That’s what you are. A Grey Warden recruit.”

             “I don’t want to be.”

             “Well, it’s a little late for that now, isn’t it?”

             “For the Maker’s sake, Elissa!” he barked, shooting to his feet. The chair scraped noisily on the stone floor behind him. “Do you really hate me that much that you’d do this to me? To my family?”

             “Do what?” she demanded, standing as well. “I gave your family everything it deserves! I did what was right. I brought vengeance to your family for what they did to mine!”

             “My father must have had his reasons.”

             Elissa laughed humourlessly. “I’ll tell you what his reasons were, Nathaniel. He wanted power. He hated that my father was always more popular, more loved than he was. That he was a Teyrn. He wanted to replace my father, and so he did, by spilling blood. He slaughtered every man, woman, and child inside Cousland Castle the night you left. He would have killed me too if Warden-Commander Duncan hadn’t recruited me and helped me escape.” Nathaniel noticed her eyes had become shiny and wet, her hands grasping the edge of the desk tightly. “He even killed my nephew, Oren. You knew him. He was a child.” She looked down at a frame propped up on her desk. Nathaniel sneaked a glance at it to see a family portrait. Her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and her nephew. “Rendon Howe sided with Loghain, a traitor to Ferelden who claimed he wanted what was best for the country, but he was deluded. Any sane person could have seen it, but your father clearly chose to ignore that. He helped Loghain commit hideous crimes against all races. In the end, I killed him for what he did,” she looked him right in the eye, “and I do not regret that one bit.”

             The words hit him like a fist to the chest. He stood silently, glaring at her, but inside, doubt began to eat away at him. He had been so sure that his father’s murder had been unjust, but the emotion on Elissa’s face and in her words, the death of her family, the things his father may have done… Now he was unsure.

             “Get out of my sight,” she ordered, pointing at the door. “I don’t want to see you for the rest of the day.”

             Nathaniel refused to move, however. “My father may have done those things, but I didn’t, so why punish me? Why punish my entire family for what one member did?”

             “I could have asked your father that, when he killed my entire family.” She walked slowly around the table, her body rigid and poised, like a snake preparing for an attack. “Do you know what he said when I confronted him?” she asked. “He told me how my parents died, how he killed them. That my parents died on their knees, and my nephew was burned on a scrap heap along with my brother’s Antivan whore of a wife.” She stopped in front of him. He may have been taller than her by several inches, but the pure fury in her eyes made him flinch. “He thought nothing of trying to end my family, so I will think nothing of destroying yours.”

             Nathaniel breathed heavily, as though someone had tied a rope around his chest. His fists trembled again at his sides, and his eyes saw red. “Why did you have to stoop to his level, then?” he yelled. Elissa took a cautious step back. “Why did you have to destroy us too? It makes you no better than the man you claim he was! Where are all my family’s staff? Where are Delilah and Thomas? Have you killed them too? And what of all my family’s belongings? Did you dispose of them, like you’re disposing of my family’s name?”

             Elissa simply stared at him, her face unreadable. Her breathing was slow and controlled. “Follow me,” she ordered, and left the room.

             Nathaniel blinked, stunned. For a moment, he thought she may hit him. He followed her out of the room. She took him down several corridors and into a floor below ground, into a basement. It was dark and dingy, with no windows for light, only candles that flickered and made shadows dance about the room. Elissa led him over to a large vault on the far side of the room. His father had kept a lot of their family fortune in there. No doubt Elissa was going to show him that it was drained empty. He almost turned back and left her down there, but something told him to stay.

             She used a combination and opened the vault, the metal door heavy enough to make Elissa grunt when she pushed it open. Inside sat all of the things that were missing from upstairs. Tapestries, paintings, medallions, jewels, statues, books, and more…all neatly stored away in here, away from prying eyes.

             “The other Wardens wanted to burn everything on a large fire,” she said, not looking at him, instead looking at the objects before them. “I ordered them not to. Instead, everything of importance was put in here for safe keeping.” She finally looked at him again. “I am not completely heartless, you know.” She turned and walked away. “If you want anything out of there, take it and close the door after you.” She paused at the steps leading up into the keep. "As for your brother and sister, I don't know what became of them. No one does." Then she ascended up the stairs, leaving him alone in the large, empty basement.

             Suddenly, Nathaniel didn’t feel so angry. He looked at all his family’s belongings and pretty much everything that was upstairs scattered about the keep was in here, safely preserved and hidden away. She made sure nothing happened to these. He walked inside the vault and picked up a portrait.  His father’s face stared back at him. Something isn’t right. Could Nathaniel have been wrong? Maybe his father was responsible for everything Elissa had accused him of. It seemed so out of character for her to murder an innocent man, and she was the only survivor of the massacre that night…

             He shook his head to rid his mind of such thoughts, and stepped outside the vault, closing the door behind him. My past is inside here, and that’s where it will stay. I need to ensure that the Howe name is restored, and no longer tainted by my father’s actions.

Chapter Text

14 – Elissa

Elissa gathered Oghren, Anders, and Nathaniel, and briefed them on the task ahead. She stood before them as they lined up in front of her, her chest out, hands clasped behind her back. Although she was smaller than these men—except for Oghren—she was determined to command with an heir of authority. “Today we will be heading to Amaranthine,” she said. “We must inquire about the lost Grey Warden, Kristoff. He has connections there.”

             “Will there be time for…other excursions?” asked Oghren. “Ones involving the local tavern?”

             Elissa shook her head at him, attempting to hold back a smile. She could not be seen condoning his behaviour. “Grey Warden business must always come first,” she said, and gestured for everyone to follow her out of the Keep, into the courtyard. “But…if there is time, I don’t see why we cannot have a drink or two.”

             Oghren cheered. “Yeah! All right! Knew leadership wouldn’t change yeh!”

             “Only if we have time, Oghren,” Elissa warned. “Think of it as a reward for hard work.”

             They walked out across the cobbled stones towards the gates, but Nathaniel wandered off from the group. She looked back to see him approach an elderly elf who brushed autumn leaves to one side with a rake.

             “Samuel?” called Nathaniel. “Groundskeeper Samuel? Is that you?”

             The elderly man turned, a confused look on his face. “Who…?” His eyes widened as they focused on Nathaniel. “Maker’s breath, if it isn’t little Nate! I’d know that face anywhere!”

             Nathaniel smiled faintly. “Groundskeeper, I’m overjoyed to see you stayed on. Please, do you know what happened to my brother? And my sister? I… was in the Free Marches.”

             Samuel sighed. “You don’t know? Thomas died in the war, but Lady Delilah… Last I heard, she married a storekeep in Amaranthine. Don’t know which one. Poor girl.”

             Nathaniel laughed, a release of relief. “Did you hear that?” he asked the group. “My sister’s alive!”

             “Why did you assume she was dead?” Elissa asked.

             “At first I thought you had killed them along with my father,” he admitted, not able to look at her. “But after not hearing anything from either of them for years… I grew concerned. I’m saddened to hear about Thomas, but we were never close. I am pleased, however, to see my fears about Delilah are not reality.”

             “For what it’s worth, that is good news,” said Elissa.

             “Could…could we ask around the shops when we’re in Amaranthine?” he asked. His question was hesitant, as if there was a possibility that she could refuse him. How heartless does he think I am?

             “Of course,” Elissa replied. “You want to know what happened to her. As we investigate Kristoff’s whereabouts, you may search the shops, but our business takes priority.”

             “…Thank you.” Nathaniel nodded to her. “I just want to see her.”

             “Let’s hope you do,” said Oghren, “and that her new lover is the owner of a tavern!”

             Anders snorted with laughter as the dwarf cracked up at his own joke. Nathaniel looked appalled, and Elissa exasperated. Why did I think allowing Oghren to be a Grey Warden was a good idea? She held her head high however, and shot the dwarf a stern look. He fell silent immediately. Good, at least my authority is not challenged. Marching ahead, she led the way out of the keep, into the wilderness, and onto Amaranthine.

 

“Excuse me, but I need to search your packs for smuggled goods.”

            An armoured guard stood in the entrance way to Amarathine, blocking their way inside.

            Elissa blinked, then scoffed. “Do you know who you’re speaking with?”

            The man looked taken aback by her stern tone. “I…erm…”

            Oghren muffled his snigger behind her, Anders looked amused, and Nathaniel curious. She felt his eyes on her back like two tiny pinpricks of ice.

            “I am the Warden-Commander of Vigil’s Keep,” she said.

            The guard shuffled nervously. “But I have to! Constable’s orders. We’ve been having trouble with smugglers and—”

            Another guard, older and more experienced, marched over, concerned. “What are you doing, man? Are you accusing the Commander of the Grey of smuggling?”

            The guard spun, and his face dropped. “But I…I…you said everyone—”

            “You are dismissed.”

            The young guard bowed, and shot an apologetic look towards Elissa before he scurried away. The older guard, that Elissa assumed was the Constable, held out his hand. “I apologise,” he said, as Elissa shook his hand. “Smugglers and thieves have all but taken over the city.”

            “No harm done. Do you need any assistance?”

            “We could certainly use your help in this.”

            She gestured for him to walk beside her as they entered the city together. It was an old and historic place. Battlements surrounded the city, enclosing in buildings made of strong stone.

            “With trade slowed to a crawl,” the Constable began, “smugglers have moved in—selling stolen goods at exorbitant prices. If we could shut down their operation and seize their supplies, we could distribute it to the needy.”

            Elissa thought for a moment. Really, she was there for Grey Warden business only, and that always took priority. But…Grey Wardens needed to continue their good reputation, after Loghain tarnished it with his lies a year prior. Helping the people of Amaranthine could promote our cause and our image…

            “How do I find the smugglers?” she asked.

            “There’s one doing business in the market,” the Constable replied. “He probably knows where the hideout is. We haven’t been able to get anything from him, but maybe you can.”

            Elissa nodded, and continued further into the city centre. It was not the only task she took on, however. Many people approached the famous Commander of the Grey for her help, and she had no choice but to accept.

            “I thought you said we were here for Grey Warden business only,” Anders teased.

            Elissa threw her arms up in despair. “I know! But if people need our help, we can’t say no. It would look bad on the Order, and we need to keep up appearances.”

            Nathaniel rolled his eyes, and sighed loudly—Elissa thought it was deliberate. The sound made her roll her neck about her shoulders, relieving it of the tension. “Come, let’s help these people whilst also looking out for any signs of Kristoff.”

            They relieved the smugglers of their goods and helped distribute them throughout the city, informed a wife that her missing husband had died, found flowers for some orphans to give to a woman as an apology for a cruel prank they played and took out some hostile apostates, but there was no sign of Kristoff.

            Elissa flopped down onto some steps and took a swig from her waterskin, feeling slightly defeated. She was sure the information on the lost Grey Warden led here. Where could Kristoff be? He may have important information that they desperately needed in order to figure out what the Darkspawn were doing so long after the Fifth Blight.

            Oghren put his arm around Elissa’s shoulder as he stood on the step beside her. “I think we should take a well-deserved break in the Tavern, just over there.”

            Elissa looked up and followed Oghren’s stubby finger to see a tavern called the Crown and Lion Inn. She exhaled loudly and got to her feet. “Fine, let’s go inside.”

            Oghren cheered, and made a move to sprint towards the tavern. Elissa grabbed hold of his armour. “You are allowed one drink, Oghren,” she warned. “If I catch you drinking more than one tankard of mead, you’ll be in serious trouble.”

            Oghren nodded, though she was sure he had not truly heard her, and raced into the tavern, the fastest she had ever seen him move. Shaking her head at him, she and the others followed the dwarf inside.

            As it turned out, the Crown and Lion was the last place Kristoff had stayed. Whilst Oghren raced to the bar to grab a round of drinks, Elissa squeezed her way though the merry tavern-goers towards the innkeeper.

            “Somethin’ I can do for you, friend?” he asked, cleaning tankards with a cloth behind a separate desk from the bar.

            “Did a Grey Warden by the name of Kristoff come though here?” she asked.

            “And who’re you supposed to be that’s asking?”

            “I am his commander,” Elissa replied, puffing her chest out.

            “Oh! Welcome, my lady!” he nodded his head in respect. “Haven’t seen that fellow Kristoff for almost a week now. Not sure where he went. His room’s paid up to the end of the month. I guess he expected he’d be here a while.”

            “If it’s possible, I would like the key to Kristoff’s room.”

            “Of course!” he rummaged around in his pocket and pulled out a key, placing it in her palm. “Here you go. It’s the last room at the end of the hall. If he comes back and gets upset, it’s on your head.”

            A loud cheer caught her attention. She turned around to see Oghren in the centre of a group of drunkards, challenging a youngster to a drinking contest. She swiftly made her way over to him, and ripped the tankard out of his hand before it could touch his lips.

            “That’s enough, Oghren,” she warned.

            “But, I haven’t had that one drink you promised yet!” he complained.

            She grabbed him by his armour, pulled him aside, and spoke in a hushed tone. “We may have been friends before you joined the Order,” she said, “but I am not going to allow you to act like a drunken fool! You have a reputation to uphold now. You cannot be seen drinking yourself into a stupor anymore. You wanted to join the Wardens, you must act accordingly.”

            “Didn’t know you had to be an uptight milk-drinker to join,” he mumbled.

            “Let the man have some fun, boss!” said Anders, leaning casually against the bar. He winked over at some barmaids who giggled at his attention.

            Elissa whirled round at him. “We are not here to have some fun,” she hissed. “From now on, no excursions. I tried to be lenient since you are all new recruits, but now I see that I must be firm on you. We do our duty and return to Vigil’s Keep.”

            “Wow, you sound like my tutors back in the Circle,” Anders huffed. “Do your lessons, have no fun.”

            “Am I the only sane person here?” Nathaniel grumbled. “Can we just get on with this?”

            “You are such a teacher’s pet,” said Anders. “Sucking up to her.”

            “Enough!” Elissa cut in. “You three stay here and observe what the townsfolk have to say, whilst I investigate Kristoff’s room. Behave yourselves or I swear I will give the staff a day off and make you scrub dirty boots and clean the pots!” She turned on her heels and marched upstairs.

            It was as though she was a mother to two naughty children. To her surprise, Nathaniel was the only one behaving himself. Perhaps because he understood what it was like to be beneath someone, to take orders, whereas Oghren had been treated as a companion and friend in the past, and Anders had clear issues with authority.

            Elissa used the key to open Kristoff’s room, and had a look around. He had a chest containing a few belongings: a few mementos and a letter from what appeared to be his wife. Clothes hung neatly in a nearby wardrobe, his bed was made up, and a desk sat at the edge of the room, covered in books and papers. She rummaged through some of them to find a journal. Curious, she flicked through to the most recent entry:

 

Few in town have heard anything about darkspawn stragglers. I doubted the reports myself until a man told me he encountered darkspawn in the Blackmarsh. Although locals say the marsh is haunted, brave and desperate souls like this man still risk collecting peat.

The man said their leader spoke, but all know darkspawn cannot talk. More horrifying, he described a monster, a worm with legs. Surely he was mistaken about it following the darkspawn.

I shall leave for the Blackmarsh in the morning.

 

            “Found anything?”

            Elissa turned to see Nathaniel lingering in the doorway. “I told you to wait downstairs with the others.”

            “I am no babysitter,” he replied, entering the room. “Did you find anything?” he asked again.

            Elissa held up the journal. “Kristoff went to Blackmarsh, says right here in his journal. Hopefully he will still be there and we can find him.” She put it away in her satchel for safe keeping, in case it held any other useful pieces of information.

            “Did you mean what you said down there?” he asked, making her pause. “About no more excursions. Does that mean we will not be looking for my sister here?”

            “Unfortunately, it does. We have more pressing matters to attend to—”

            “I’m sure if you didn’t know whether Fergus was alive or dead you would want to look for him too,” he barked. “You cannot deny me this.”

            “I can, and I will,” she told him sternly. “Two years ago, I was in the same situation, unsure whether my brother lived or was rotting in the wilderness somewhere. I had to postpone my own wishes to save Ferelden. At least you know she is alive and that she’s here in the city. We can come back another time, for now we must continue with our duty.”

            “Is that all you care about now? Your duty?” Nathaniel snarled. “I didn’t know you could be so cold.”

            She walked past him towards the door. “You can thank your father for that. Now, come along, we must find the others since you left them alone to their devices. Goodness knows what they’ve gotten up to.”

Chapter Text

15 – Elissa

She took a sharp turning out of the Crown and Lion and back towards the city gates. Anders and Oghren followed grudgingly, looking like two naughty children who had been told off by their mother, arms crossed, stubborn expressions on their faces. Nathaniel followed further behind, his glare on Elissa’s back like two hot pokers. She ignored his piercing eyes and continued on, ordering them to follow.

            They will learn that duty comes before themselves, she thought, hopeful. They will understand why I am being so hard. So…cold. Nathaniel’s words stuck in her mind. “I didn’t know you could be so cold.” Was that who she was now? A cold-hearted leader? No, I am simply doing my duty, as I should be.

            Her eyes were drawn towards the Chantry, a comforting place, but also one of knowledge. Sometimes Chantry personnel saw things that townsfolk failed to see. She ascended the steps towards the wooden entrance doors, when a familiar face caught her attention. Standing nearby with her usual bright red senior mage robes and an apothecary’s satchel over her shoulders…was Wynne.

            “Wynne!” Elissa called, waving.

            The old woman spotted her, and her face melted into a warm, motherly smile. “My dear! Oh, it is good to see you! Come here and give an old lady a hug,” she said, holding her arms out wide. Elissa obliged, entering the comfort of her embrace. She smelled like lyrium and herbs. “I contemplated visiting you at Vigil’s Keep, but things…got busy.”

            Elissa pulled away, looking at her old friend. She had not changed a bit in the last year since they had seen one another. She still had short, white hair pulled back into a ponytail, warm eyes, and a soft voice. A comforting sight. “Busy? What happened?” she asked.

            “The College of Magi is convening in Cumberland, and I must attend. Hopefully all this will blow over before it’s begun. But you have enough on your mind as it is. I shan’t trouble you with this further.”

            “I always have time for you, Wynne. Do tell me more.”

            Nathaniel grunted. “She has time for an old lady but no time for ‘excursions’.”

            “Watch your tongue,” Elissa barked, holding a hand up to silence him. “Wynne is a veteran of the Fifth Blight who fought alongside me to defeat the Archdemon, and a dear friend of mine and the Wardens. You will show her some respect.”

            Wynne watched the two with concerned, wrinkled eyes. “I am not offended,” she said calmly. “You cannot expect everyone to know who I am. Perhaps you should dismiss your companions whilst we talk privately.”

            Elissa nodded. “You three are dismissed, but you are not to step one foot inside that tavern,” she ordered.

            Wynne waited until the three Warden recruits had dispersed before continuing. “You should know, something stirs within the fraternities. Some wish to pull away from the Chantry, and are gaining vast numbers of support. It could end in chaos, and I am heading to Nevarra to help prevent that.”

            “It sounds like a huge task you’ve got there,” said Elissa. “I hope all goes well.”

            “Well, enough about me.” Wynne placed a hand on her shoulder. “How are things on your end? You must be under a lot of emotional stress.”

            Elissa frowned. “What? I’m under no stress, I assure you, I’m—”

            Wynne’s disbelieving eyes silenced her. “You cannot fool me, young lady. Nathaniel Howe is travelling with you.”

            “Yes,” she said bluntly. “He’s a Warden now.”

            “I see that. How did it happen?”

            Elissa cleared her throat, looking away. “I…um…ahem…I invoked the right of conscription when he was found trespassing in Vigil’s Keep.”

            Wynne frowned. “Oh, Elissa. It’s no wonder that poor boy looks so unhappy.”

            “He’s unhappy because he’s paying for his family’s crimes, as he should be,” she said stubbornly, crossing her arms. “He deserves everything he gets given to him.”

            Wynne’s frown became wrinkled with worry. “I haven’t seen this hatred within you surface for a long time. Nathaniel Howe’s presence has summoned it. You have not dealt with it, as you promised me you would. You have allowed it to consume you.”

            “I have not,” Elissa retorted, though her heart was not in it. Wynne’s words began to crack at her cold exterior. “I-I’m perfectly happy, thank you very much, I just have a duty to fulfil with three Wardens who are still learning that duty comes before themselves.”

            Wynne slowly shook her head at her. “I know you. You are not happy, and it is perfectly normal to feel the way you do. You are dealing with the son of the man who almost ruined your family name, who destroyed your home and killed hundreds of innocents, including your family—your parents. He is a representation of everything you thought you had already defeated a year ago during the Fifth Blight.” She pulled Elissa aside and the pair sat down on a small stone wall that lined the entrance to the Chantry. “It is okay to feel angry, but what is not okay, is taking that anger out on others. You forced Nathaniel to become a Warden against his will.”

            “We needed people after a darkspawn attack on Vigil’s Keep. They killed so many Wardens—”

            “And you needed him specifically? Was that the reason why you recruited him?”

            Elissa closed her eyes, shoulders sagging. “No. I did it out of spite.”

            Wynne placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You must live with the consequences of your actions, just as you did during the Blight. What you did here was wrong, you see that, yes?” She waited until Elissa nodded her head. “I do not condone what you did, but from what I understand, it was done out of raw emotion. You must not let these feelings consume you, Elissa. Bad things happen when they do.”

            Elissa sighed, guilt twisting her stomach. Her eyes wandered until they found Nathaniel not too far away, staring up at a statue.

            Wynne got to her feet. “I must leave you now. You have problems of your own now, as do I.”

            Elissa stood as well. “It was so good to see you. I apologise for not writing more often.”

            “It is enough that you came over to speak with me,” Wynne said with a smile. “I have no idea how much longer I have left in this world, but I treasure every moment with you, however fleeting.”

            Elissa embraced her, inhaling the smell of herbs and lyrium once again. “Thank you, Wynne. You always know what to say.”

            “That comes with age. You learn from your own mistakes and tell the youngsters before they can make the same ones.” Her wrinkled hand patted Elissa’s cheek. “I wish you nothing but happiness and good fortune, child. I hope that I will see you at least one more time.”

            “As do I,” Elissa replied. “You are welcome at Vigil’s Keep at any time.”

            “I will try and visit when I return from Nevarra. Now, I bid you farewell, dear.” Wynne bowed her head respectively before she walked away, giving Elissa a little wave.

            A sudden sadness spread within her. This may be the last time I ever see her. She forced herself to wave back, a smile on her face. Thank you, Wynne. For everything.

            Elissa looked back to see Nathaniel was still staring up at the statue, but now his face had warped into a snarl. Hesitantly, she approached him.

            “It figures, actually,” he said, as Elissa drew near.

            She stopped beside him. “What does?”

            “There used to be another statue here. It was of Byron Howe, my great uncle. He died in the rebellion, helping King Maric reclaim his throne. Yet his statue is gone.” He looked down. “All because of what my father did.”

            “That’s…” Elissa stopped herself before she could say, ‘because your father was a traitor’. “A…shame,” she managed eventually.

            Nathaniel’s brows furrowed at her for a moment. “There’s a long line of heroes in my family. The Howes have been around since Calenhad. Now it’s all gone.” His voice broke, so he cleared his throat. “And for what?” he said, voice raising. “For being on the wrong side of the war? For choosing poorly?”

            “Your father was more involved than that,” Elissa said softly.

            Nathaniel shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. I wish I knew exactly how.” He sighed, weary. “I wonder what happened to the old statue. Likely propping up the side of a Chantry or something. Poor Arl Byron.” He waved away his concern. “Ah, statues are for pigeons. I don’t want to look at it.”

            He turned on his heels and marched off, leaving Elissa staring after him. She looked up at the statue. It seemed to stare down at her with disappointed eyes. She quickly looked away, guilt swirling in her stomach again. It was not her who had the statue removed. The people of Amaranthine wanted it gone. All the same, she began to feel a bit of sympathy for Nathaniel, her cold exterior melting even further.

            “Nathaniel, wait!” she called, and jogged after him. He stopped after she called him for the third time.

            “Yes, commander?” he asked, sarcastically.

            “Give me that attitude again and I will follow through on my promise to give the staff at Vigil’s Keep a day off so you can do their duties for them,” she warned, before she stopped herself again. This time, she took a softer tone. “After some thought, I believe we may have some time to explore the city further,” she said.

            Nathaniel looked down at her with suspicious eyes.

            “To find your sister,” Elissa added. “Since we are here, it is unfair to leave with matters unfinished when I promised you that we would allocate time to look for her.”

            His face softened. “Do you mean that?”

            She looked away from him as her heart performed an odd sort of motion. It fluttered. “We must gather Anders and Oghren first,” she said, gesturing for Nathaniel to follow her. “Goodness knows what trouble they have gotten themselves into. No doubt they could not stay away from—”

            The touch of Nathaniel’s hand on her arm made her pause. “Thank you,” was all he said, before the pair walked silently together towards the tavern, where Anders and Oghren were sitting outside on the steps nearby, looking grumpy.

            “We did not go inside,” Anders said quickly. “We just sat as close to the place as we could.”

            “Can’t get in trouble for that now, can we?” said Oghren.

            Elissa flicked two fingers up, gesturing for them to stand. “Nathaniel and I have business to take care of in the city. Anders, I want you to patrol the area with Oghren and report back to me if you find anything suspicious. Darkspawn raids are happening outside the city, and I want to know if anyone inside knows anything about it. Understood?”

            “Yes, ser,” said Oghren, giving her a little salute.

            “All right, boss,” said Anders. “Some on, short stuff.” He slapped Oghren on the back and the pair walked away together.

            Elissa turned to see Nathaniel looking down at her in disbelief. “You were serious?”

            “Completely,” she replied. “Come on, I’m sure the groundskeeper said something about her being married to a shopkeeper. There are plenty of shops around here, so we have a rather large task on our hands.”

Chapter Text

16 – Nathaniel

Nathaniel and Elissa wandered about the shops, speaking with tenders and locals, asking after Lady Delilah Howe, but no one had seen her. His worry grew worse as the hours went on, and there was no sign of her.

            Even with the worry growing in the pit of his stomach, however, he could not help but feel a little dazed. Elissa had changed her mind, allowing them to look for his sister, when she had previously dismissed the notion. What is going on inside her head? He wondered. She’s full of surprises. Neither one of them said a word to the other as they searched. She refused to look at him, and he at her.

            They walked for what seemed like an age, the sun slowly beginning to set behind the horizon, painting the city in an orange glow. Just as his hopes began to dwindle, he stopped dead at the sight of a woman tidying the exterior of a shop where the stall was. Elissa walked right into the back of him.

            “Hey! Watch where you—” She stopped, seemingly noticing what Nathaniel was looking at.

            The woman had short dark hair, and wore simple Ferelden clothing with an apron around her waist. She had hardly changed since he had last seen her a few years ago.

            “Delilah?” he said, approaching her. “Is that really you?”

            The woman beamed back at him. “Nathaniel! I had feared the worst!”

            He scooped her up into his arms and held her tightly in an embrace, neither one of them saying anything to the other for a few moments, before they pulled themselves apart. Elissa stepped back to give them some privacy, watching from a distance.

            Nathaniel’s eyes scanned his sister from head to toe, and his nose wrinkled at her tatty attire. “Times must have been hard, Delilah, but you can do better than this. Come back to the estate until we find somewhere else.”

            Delilah giggled. “What? Oh, Nathaniel! I didn’t marry Albert out of desperation. I adore him! I was so glad to get away from Father’s evil—this life is so much better.”

            Nathaniel jerked his head back in surprise. “Father’s evil? Isn’t that overstating things a little? He got caught up in politics…”

            Delilah shook her head. “You weren’t here. You didn’t see what he did, Nathaniel. You want the culprit who destroyed our family? It was him, without question.”

            For a moment he said nothing, simply blinking back at her in utter shock. “I…had no idea,” was all he could say. He glanced back at Elissa, who quickly looked away, pretending that she was not listening to the conversation—although he sensed that she was—suddenly very interested in one of her daggers.

            “Of course you did,” said Delilah. “But you always worshipped Father, right from when you were a little boy.” She held her hand out to him. “Come, brother. Let us sit and catch up a bit, shall we?”

            Nathaniel took a step forward, but stopped, turning to Elissa. “May I—”

            “We have time,” she said. “Go on. I will find the others and see if they have learned anything.”

            Nathaniel inclined his head to her before following Delilah into a tiny shop, made of stone and wood, and filled with odd bits and bobs for sale. At the back of the store sat two wooden chairs either side of a table. Delilah gestured towards one, and wandered over to a small fireplace to make some hot tea. As Nathaniel sat down, however, he noticed his sister place a hand on her stomach as she bent down to pick up a pot to place on the fire. A stomach that looked slightly larger than he had previously seen…

            “You’re pregnant?” he exclaimed.

            Delilah chuckled. “We have a lot to discuss.” She made two steaming cups of fresh leaved tea and sat down at the table opposite him, pushing his cup towards him. Nathaniel took it in both hands, the warmth spreading through his leather gloves.

            “Tell me what happened, sister,” said Nathaniel, almost pleadingly. “I must know the truth. If what you say about Father is true…”

            “It is,” Delilah said firmly. “Father was…” She closed her eyes, and placed a hand on her stomach again, as if for comfort. “A cold jealously had engulfed him. He spoke of nothing but the Couslands, how they had everything and we had nothing—which was of course not true. He was an Arl, better off than most folk.” She took a sip of her tea, and Nathaniel copied. It tasted like dirt and leaves, but the warmth made him shiver. “I must write to Elissa when I get a moment. I would like to offer my apologies for what our father did.”

            Nathaniel blinked. “You mean…she was telling the truth? Father killed her family?”

            Delilah nodded. “He slaughtered the entire Cousland household, tortured the Teryn and her Ladyship, and then piled all the bodies onto a scrap heap for all to see. He was very proud of that.” Her face turned a little green, fingers fiddling with her cup. “In fact, he described in great detail what he did to them. I couldn’t believe it when he told me. I was utterly shocked that he would betray our ally—his old friend—all for a bit of power, to stand beside a ruthless villain who killed King Cailan.

            “Then he helped Loghain Mac Tir with his schemes to stay on the seat of power. He had elves shipped off to Tevinter for slavery, threatened nobles to join his cause, often holding their family for ransom, he helped poison Arl Eamon Guerrin…among other things.” Delilah took another sip of tea, before a long, drawn out sigh escaped her. “Father was always a terrible man, but he became so…so evil, that I ran away. I had to get away from there, from him. What he was doing…he was causing such suffering, Nathaniel! He named himself the Teryn of Highever, but did not stop there. He hired assassins to kill Elissa Cousland when Loghain discovered that she and King Alistair were alive. He tried to kill her multiple times.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “But at the end of the day, he deserved to die.”

            Her words washed over Nathaniel in waves, each one crushing him further. Feeling as though he could not breathe, he forced himself to take a breath, and another sip of tea. “Where did you go?” was all he could say.

            “I waited until the middle of the night before I sneaked out of our estate in Denerim. I ran in any direction I could. I wanted to get as far away from Father and his evil schemes. I tried to convince him, to stop him…but my words fell on deaf ears. I ended up on the road towards…well, I’m not sure. I became so lost that I had no idea which way was back and which way was forward. That’s when I met Albert, see. He found me wandering the woodlands at night, and escorted me to the nearest town. I told him who I was and at first, he was very suspicious of me. Many people had heard about what Father was doing, and disapproved. He thought I may have been a part of it. Then he heard me out and realised that I was trying to get away from him, not back to him. He took me to Amaranthine and kept me hidden here until Father stopped looking for me.

            “I would help about the shop and pretend I was his assistant. People were none the wiser, as I never revealed my true name. Only Albert knew. He took care of me, showed me how to do basic things like cook and clean and wash clothes—things I was too spoilt to have learned, growing up as a noblewoman, but he didn’t mind. Then, when we thought the coast was clear for me to leave…neither one of us wanted me to go.” A small smile appeared crept onto her face. “The rest is history I suppose.”

            “So…you didn’t marry him in order to keep yourself hidden? You actually want this life?” he asked, gesturing to the shop’s shabby interior.

            Delilah smiled. “Yes! Is that so hard to believe? It’s simple and safe and reassuring. I have a loving husband who takes good care of me, a stable position here in the city, as I took Albert’s last name so no one knows I was once a Howe, and we are about to start a family.”

            Nathaniel read her face. She looked genuinely happy. Her smile reached her eyes, they lit up when she spoke of Albert, and she kept touching her stomach fondly. Perhaps leaving nobility wasn’t such a bad thing after all. “As long as you are happy, sister, then I am happy for you.”

            “I am, brother. I pray that you feel the same happiness as I do one day.” She sat back in her chair, nursing her mug. “Now, your turn to tell me what has happened to you. I see you are a Grey Warden now,” she said, looking at his blue and silver armour.

            Nathaniel looked away. “Not by choice,” he said, and then proceeded to tell her how he had tried to break into vigil’s keep, and that in turn had cost him his life, forcing him into the Order.

            She shot him a sympathetic look. “Grey Wardens are famous for atonement, you know. They take in people of all backgrounds, criminals and noblemen, and grant them another chance. Perhaps this is an opportunity to make people see that the Howes are not all like Father was.”

            Nathaniel nodded, staring down into his cup. Perhaps Delilah is right. This could be my chance to show the world that the Howes are not evil. Only Father was. This may be a blessing in disguise. He rose from his chair. “I shouldn’t keep the Commander waiting,” he said.

            Delilah slowly stood too, cradling her stomach. “Is that how you refer to her now? The Commander? It sounds so…cold. You two used to be as thick as thieves.”

            “‘Used to’ being the key words,” he said bluntly. “She has made it very clear that we are no longer friends.”

            Delilah shrugged. “I cannot say I am surprised. You believed Father to have been wrongly dammed and it has clearly bothered her, considering what he put her through.”

            Nathaniel felt a pang of guilt in his stomach. I told her to her face that Father couldn’t have been as bad as she said he was…when that was not true. I defended a man that caused such atrocities to the world and her family… It’s no wonder she hates me.

            Delilah reached out with open arms and pulled him into another hug. “From what I gather, you have important business with the Wardens to attend to. When it is done, however, I would very much like you to come back and see me.” She looked up at him, and stroked his cheek. “Meet Albert, see the baby. I’m due by the spring. It would be lovely to bring my family all together again.”

            Nathaniel could not help but smile at the glee in her eyes. “I will visit you. I promise.”

            “Write to me when you can,” she said, leading him towards the shop entrance. “I have missed corresponding with you.”

            Nathaniel gave her one last hug, and bid her farewell, a weight off his chest at the discovery that his sister was alive, and happy. It was all he could ask for, even if she was no longer a member of nobility. Technically, neither was he. He had forfeited all rights to his noble status, only carrying the name.

            He weaved his way through the streets to find Elissa watching the city folk from afar, her eyes like a hawk’s, scanning the crowd of people. She snapped out of her gaze as she noticed Nathaniel approaching. “All done?”

            Nathaniel nodded, unable to look her in the eye.

            “Well, let’s gather the others and head back to Vigil’s Keep. I need to make arrangements with the Seneschal to get to Blackmarsh as soon as possible…”

            He followed her as she found Anders and Oghren speaking with a few guards—well, more like joking around with them—and stayed well behind the group as they made their way back through town towards the entrance, discussing their findings.

            Nathaniel felt so disturbed. How could he be around Elissa now? Knowing that he had been wrong all along. That she had been right, valid even, to feel anger towards him. He had been so sure that his father was not as evil as she had made him out to be…and yet his own sister had spoken out against Rendon Howe. He was unsure what to do with himself, unable to bear the thought of being near Elissa, knowing that he had been so unfair towards her. For now, he would keep his distance, at least until things had finally settled in his head and he could make sense of it all.

            Arl Rendon Howe was an evil murderer. He knew that now, but he was determined that the Howe name would not be tainted by his greedy and heartless actions. He would prove to the world that Nathaniel Howe was nothing like his father, and he would restore the family name.

Chapter Text

17 – Elissa

The days that followed were hectic. Elissa had to make decisions on matters that affected the locals, Banns and Lords from all across Amaranthine came to her for aid and advice. News of darkspawn attacks became more frequent, and the people who had managed to escape them came to her, the fabled archdemon slayer, for safety. The seneschal was in his element, and so Elissa let him take over for the most part. He knew what he was doing, whereas she had very little experience in such matters. All she really wanted to do was go to Blackmarsh to find Warden Kristoff, but, as usual, whenever Elissa needed to so something, a million other things would pop up and distract her.

            Human merchants were being killed if they went anywhere near the Wending Wood. The dwarves had reached out to her about odd encounters in Kal’Hirol. Anders was still being hunted by the Circle, Oghren was ignoring the problems with his partner, Felsi, and Nathaniel…well, he had not spoken to her since they had arrived back at Vigil’s Keep a few days ago. He could not even look at her, let alone speak to her. He would turn the other way if they crossed paths in a corridor, help the Keep’s staff with random tasks in order to avoid any meetings she held, and would always take his dinner up to the bedrooms to eat alone instead of eating with everyone in the dining hall.

            What is he doing? Was he up to something? Why was he avoiding her? I helped him find his sister…so why is he acting so strangely? She was forced to push those thoughts side, however, as she had a duty to attend to.

            One busy afternoon, she managed to escape a meeting with local banns, lords, and farmers, slipping into her office adorned with Grey Warden attire. She quickly shut the door after her, blocking out all noise from the castle below. I can see why Arl Howe used his room as a private study. She turned to enter the room, and almost jumped out of her skin as a figure emerged from the shadows on the far side of the room. Her fingers automatically reached for the daggers strapped to her back.

            “It’s just me!” said the figure, as they walked into the candlelight.

            Elissa whipped out a dagger, holding it steady in front of her, the adrenaline coursing through her taking over. It took a few seconds for her brain to recognise who was in the room with her. Elissa slowed her breathing to bring her pulse to a regular rhythm, but did not lower the dagger. “What the hell are you doing in here?” she hissed.

            Nathaniel Howe raised his hands in the air. “I mean no harm. You can put that away.”

            “You mean no harm by sneaking into my private study and waiting for me to return alone?” she said, doubtful.

            “I came here to apologise,” he said quickly, catching her off guard.

            She lowered the dagger, keeping her back to the door, her dagger by her side but her grip on the hilt did not loosen, eyes watching him with curiosity and disbelief. “What for?” she demanded.

            “Can you stop acting so cold towards me, Elissa, please,” he said, almost pleadingly.

            “I’ve already told you, you may refer to me as Commander, and that is all. We are not on a first-name basis.”

            Nathaniel’s body was taut and stiff, his hands flexing at his sides. “I am trying to apologise to you, Commander,” he said slowly, and took a step forward.

            She raised her dagger in response, and he froze. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.

            “I am not trying to hurt you!” he shouted. “Maker’s sake!”

            “You have been acting strange for almost a week now,” she said. “Ever since you saw your sister in Amaranthine, you haven’t been able to look me in the eye. You’re up to something, I know it.”

            “I’m not up to anything.”

            “I doubt that.”

            Nathaniel’s jaw set, and he exhaled loudly thought his nose. “You are not making this easy.”

            “What do you want?” she demanded. “The truth, now.”

            “TO APOLOGISE!” he roared. “How many times do I have to tell you before you believe me?!”

            She flinched as he raised his voice, and held her dagger a little higher.

            “I came here with the intention of telling you how sorry I am that I spoke ill of you and your family when my father was the one in the wrong. I was wrong to defend him. I was wrong to believe he was innocent of the crimes you accuse him of. I was wrong. Okay? I am trying to tell you that I’m sorry!”

            Elissa almost dropped her dagger at his admission. She faltered, falling back against the door, her breath escaping her. She looked into those silver eyes of his and saw genuine emotion in them, hurt and sorrow. She cleared her throat. “…Okay.”

            Nathaniel made a derisive noise with his throat. “Is that it? That’s all you can say? Okay?

            Elissa felt as though someone had ripped out her voice box, rendering her speechless. She stared at him blankly, struggling to process what he had said.

            “I have spent days torturing myself over the idea that I may have prevented my father’s actions if I had just stayed in Ferelden instead of becoming a squire. That I was so blind to see that my father had become the evil man you describe him to be. Delilah told me everything and I now realise how stupid I’ve been. I have been trying to find the right way to tell you how sorry I am for what happened, and when I finally do, you have nothing to say about it?”

            “I-I…”

            Nathaniel’s face warped into a glare. “After everything I’ve just said… I just opened myself up to you and apologised, and you cannot even…” He shoved a stack of books off of her desk, sending them tumbling to the floor, pages flying everywhere. “I should never have bothered.” He stormed towards the door, pushed a stunned Elissa aside, and left the room, slamming the door closed behind him.

            She staggered over to her desk, ignoring the books and pages all over the floor, and fell into her chair. What in Thedas just happened? It was as though she were waking up from a strange dream. Nathaniel apologised…and I said nothing. She had no idea why she had been unable to respond to him. Can I forgive him? A part of her didn’t want to. She could not get the thought out of her head that Nathaniel had been a part of his father’s plans to destroy her family. She could not see him any other way than as a traitor. Maybe I am in the wrong this time. Perhaps his words were genuine. She held her head in her hands as she lent her elbows on the desk in front of her, fingers grasping her hair.

            There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” she grunted.

            An elven messenger came into the room, bowing politely. They paused at the books and pages scattered around the room.

            “Ignore the mess,” she said. “Do you have something for me?”

            “Y-Yes,” they said, their eyes unable to stop looking at the chaos around the room. “A letter came for you this morning. Seneschal said I had to wait until you were finished with the meetings before I could give it to you.”

            Elissa held out her hand and the messenger dropped the letter into her open palm. “Thank you. You are dismissed.”

            The elf left the room and hesitantly closed the door behind them, worry clear on their face. Elissa turned the letter over in her hands. It was addressed to Elissa Cousland, rather than Arlessa or Commander of the Grey, so it must have been a personal letter. She used her dagger to cut the envelope open and began to read:

 

Dear Elissa,

I apologise for not contacting you sooner. I know we did not speak too often in the past when you would visit Vigil’s Keep on family visits with Bryce and Fergus, but I think very highly of you after what you did for Ferelden during the Blight, and what you are doing now for Amaranthine.

I do not know if Nathaniel has spoken to you about what we discussed in my husband’s shop by the time I send this letter. He was insistent that our father was innocent and had done nothing wrong. I set him straight, told him the truth of it all, that what Father did was utterly wrong. I believe that he trusts my word but is struggling to come to terms with it. He was our father after all.

I write to offer my sincere apologies. I know they cannot do much, but I want you to know that I am truly sorry for what my father did to your family. It was utterly disgusting and cruel of him. I was shocked when he told me so proudly about what he did. It was one of the reasons why I decided to leave his side.

I hope that one day we may meet as friends and put this all behind us. I cannot bear to see the family name ruined because of my father. It cannot be helped, I suppose, but it is still very sad all the same. I wish you well with your Grey Warden duties. Look after Nathaniel for me.

Kind Regards,

Delilah

 

            Elissa opened her desk drawer and placed the letter with other personal letters she had received since arriving in Amaranthine. The majority of them were from Fergus. He wrote almost weekly, desperate to hear that his last remaining family member was still alive and well. She would always write back without delay, to put his mind at ease. She refrained from telling him the dangerous quests she went out on, however, so not to worry him.

            Closing the desk drawer, she folded her arms on the desk and rested her head on top. Her eyes fluttered closed, as visions of that terrible night flashed before her eyes. Little Oren, dead. Father, broken and bloody on the floor. Mother staying behind, ready to die. Ser Gilmore, Old Nan, the servants, the guards…everyone dead. Duncan, killed during the battle of Ostagar. King Cailan, dead. Arl Howe’s terrified face as she plunged her dagger into his chest…

            Nathaniel’s warm embrace. His arms wrapped around her. His hands resting on her hips as they practised archery. His rare, crooked smile. His hand on her cheek, the other on her back. Their eyes closing, lips almost touching…

            Elissa violently shook her head to rip herself out of those memories, and came face-to-face with her parents faces in the small portrait she had had an artist paint for her, sitting in a frame on her desk. Her parents seemed to stare at her sadly, as if disappointed in her attitude. “Don’t look at me like that,” she mumbled, and turning away from the picture.

            This isn’t you, pup, Elissa imagined her father would say. You never held grudges for long as a child. You learned to forgive and let go.

            My darling, said her mother, you are punishing Nathaniel Howe for his father’s crimes. Whatever happened to ‘never judge a child by their parents’ actions’?

            Elissa took the portrait in her hands, holding it in front of her. Her fingers touched her parents’ faces longingly. “I wish you were here to tell me what to do,” she whispered. “You always knew what to do, both of you.”

            We are dead, darling, said her mother. You cannot hold this anger inside of you for much longer.

            It will only make matters worse, pup, said her father. You know what you must do. You do not need us to tell you that.

            With a heavy heart, she put the painting back in its place on her desk amongst scrolls and maps, and picked up the pile of books that Nathaniel had shoved onto the floor. When everything was tidied, Elissa left the room, determined to put things right.

Chapter Text

18 – Elissa

Elissa knocked on the Warden recruits’ bedroom door. “Wakey, wakey, folks. The sun is up, and I need you all dressed and ready for a quest.” Without waiting for an answer, she opened the door with a loud bang, startling the recruits inside.

                “ARGH! What? Who! Where?” Oghren yelled, tumbling out of his bunk.

                Anders snuggled into his bedsheets. “Too early,” he mumbled. Elissa marched over to his bunk and ripped them off. “Hey!” the mage moaned, scrunching into a foetal position, Ser-Pounce-A-Lot curled up against his chest. “That’s unfair.” The cat gave a sleepy meow in protest.

                Elissa could not help but smirk. “I’m your commander. I’m allowed to be unfair.” She looked over at Nathaniel’s bunk to see him sitting up, rubbing his eyes. There was no need to wake him like she had the others. “The situation in the Wending Wood has grown worse,” she told the room, opening the curtains to let the sunlight filter in. “More traders have died trying to pass through it.”

                “That’s their problem,” Oghren grumbled, stretching his stubby limbs.

                “You three are to be downstairs in fifteen minutes. I have our packs ready with some food and water for the journey.”

                Nathaniel’s soft morning voice caught Elissa off guard, her chest clenching. “I thought you said you were looking for Warden Kristoff?”

                “We have a duty to Amaranthine, just as your family did when they resided here. If the citizens need help, we must oblige.” Elissa walked with a skip in her step towards the door. After almost two years of waking up early in freezing cold campsites at the crack of dawn, she was always peppy first thing in the morning. It was almost amusing to think that in her previous life as the daughter of a Teyrn, she hardly ever woke up before midday. Now, she could not remember the last time she hadn’t woken up with the sunrise. “We shall deal with this today, and then continue the search for Warden Kristoff. Remember, you have fifteen minutes,” she warned, and left them to it.

                She waited downstairs in the courtyard, breathing in the fresh scent of the early morning. It always smelled so different to any other time of day. Perhaps it was the lack of smoke rising from the blacksmiths’ smithy, or the dew on the freshly trimmed grass. The air had a chill to it that felt crisp and refreshing, and Elissa soaked it all up. A moment of peace in a chaotic life.

                It was almost reaching the twenty minute-mark before Elissa heard the shuffling of reluctant steps approach. She sucked in her lips, attempting not to smile at their demeanour. They each wore their Grey Warden uniform and had their packs slung over their shoulders, as she did. Nathaniel was the only one awake enough to nod respectively to her. Oghren and Anders lent on each other, eyes struggling to stay open.

                “Reporting for duty, boss…” Anders slurred, raising a hand for a sleepy salute.

                She decided not to mention that they had taken longer than she had given them, pleased that they had actually listened to her. Instead she gestured for them to follow her, beginning the hike towards the Wending Wood.

                It took a couple of hours of steady walking, but they reached the woods in good time. As soon as they stepped foot inside, however, an eerie feeling hit Elissa like a brick wall. It made the hairs stand to attention along her arms.

                “You feel it too?” asked Oghren, noticing her tensed stance. “I thought it was just my hangover.”

                Up ahead, along a narrow path, a group of humans surrounded an overturned wagon. As Elissa and her party approached, they took one look at her and bolted into the trees.

                Anders sniggered. “Well, that was odd.”

                Elissa agreed. “I didn’t even say anything.”

                “It’s probably your face. I told you that you have a scary look—that one, on your face right now!”

                Elissa rolled her eyes at him, before continuing to lead the group further into the woods. They kept walking, climbing over fallen trees and avoiding huge boulders until they reached a rickety wooden bridge. Their feet made the wood creak as they stepped upon it. When they reached half way across, a bandit ran towards them, his wide eyes full of fear.

                “Get out of my way! I need to get out of here!” he cried.

                “What’s wrong?” Elissa asked, her hands twitching at her sides, ready to grasp her daggers if need be. You could never trust a bandit.

                “I just need to get out of here!”

                Elissa’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Is someone after you?”

                The bandit yelped. “The elf!” he said, pointing up at the trees on the hill above them. “She makes the trees come alive! All we wanted was some easy money from the caravans…” He stopped, his head turning at the snap of a branch. “Maker…help me!” He backed away from the trees ahead of them, almost bumping into Elissa and her companions. “She’s here, gotta get away!”

                As the bandit sprinted past them back over the bridge, a low rumble filled the air. On a ridge above them, roots shot out of the ground. When they retreated, a blond elf was in their place, staring down at them menacingly. She wore the robes of the Dalish elves, along with their tattoos on her forehead, and had a wooden staff strapped to her back.

                “Another scavenger here to prey on the misfortunes of others?” said the elf. “No…you are too well armed. Here for me then? You will not drive me from these forests. The Shems could not do it. The darkspawn could not, and you will fare no better!”

                Elissa shook her head at her claims. “We are grey wardens,” she told her, keeping her tone calm.

                The elf tilted her head to the side in confusion. “Oh. Here to battle the darkspawn then. Fair enough. Should you encounter any merchant caravans, tell them to release my sister or more of their men will die.” She waved them away disinterestedly. “Now go, deal with your darkspawn, and stay out of my way. Consider this a warning.” She raised her hands, and roots shot up from the ground by her feet. When they disappeared into the ground, so did she.

                Anders’ loud snort broke the silence. “What a weird woman.”

                “She seems to think the bandits hanging around here took her sister,” said Nathaniel.

                Oghren grunted. “They didn’t look like snatchers, or murderers.”

                Elissa was inclined to agree. Those they had passed looked like common thieves that only dealt in items they could sell on. What would they do with an elven girl? “Well,” she said, gesturing for the party to move forward, “from the sounds of it, those bandits we saw earlier weren’t all of them. Clearly this feud between the elf and these bandits are causing the merchants to get caught up in all of this. We should see if there’s any way we can put a stop to it.”

                The party travelled further into the forest, fighting their way past rogue Sylvans, sickening darkspawn, and daring bandits, until they reached what appeared to be an empty campsite in the centre of some abandoned ruins, with colourful tents and a burnt-out fire. At the entrance to the camp, there was a sword shoved into the ground. Elissa bent down to get a closer look. A common Ferelden sword, deliberately shoved into the ground…but why? She looked ahead at the campsite, daring to get a little closer. There were blood stains everywhere, and in between them were human swords scattered about the stone floor.

                “A Dalish campsite,” Elissa realised out loud, noting the elven craftmanship of the tents.

                “Don’t these people travel in packs?” asked Oghren. “What’s with the tiny camp?” He strolled ahead of Elissa. “And here…looks like there was a bit of a fight,” he said, pointing to the blood all over the ground, “but no bodies. Just all these weapons.” He took a deep breath through his bulbous nose. “Somethin’ smells here, Commander, and it isn’t me.”

                Elissa nodded in agreement. The group split up and explored the empty campsite. Discarded human weapons were everywhere, covered in blood, but where were the bodies that were clearly slain with them? Where were the Dalish elves that belonged to the camp? “It looks like the bandits attacked the Dalish here,” Elissa thought out loud as she knelt down beside a bunch of discarded weapons. “But I don’t think that’s what happened. Where are the bodies if that’s the case? Why did they leave their weapons? It doesn’t make sense.”

                “Nothing makes sense in life when you think about it,” said Anders, fiddling with his earring as he half-heartedly looked about the camp. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused at something.”

                “Now isn’t the time for your nonsense,” Nathaniel spat. “Do you ever say anything useful?”

                Anders smirked. “I can say Alakazam when I cast a spell if you like,” he said, wiggling his fingers in the air, “to make it more entertaining.”

                Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “Why did we bring him along?” he asked Elissa.

                “Because,” Anders cooed in his ear before Elissa could reply, “I’m the only one who can heal your broken bones should you accidentally fall off that bridge back there.”

                Nathaniel exhaled loudly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

                “Oh, come now, Nate, I’m only—”

                “It’s Nathaniel. I told you not to call me that.”

                Anders slid up behind the rogue and placed his hands on his shoulders. “But you never said what makes it so unappealing! What could make a nickname so effective?”

                Nathaniel shoved him away. “Don’t go there.”

                “Was it something your parents called you when you were scolded as a child?” said Anders, undeterred. “Not that I know much about having parents, being locked away in a tower for my entire life away from mine, but I’ve heard that you’re normally called by your full name when that’s the case.” He gasped dramatically at a new theory. “Ooo, is it something an ex-lover called you, one you’re not over? I bet that’s it! Isn’t this exciting? Tell me more! I’m thinking…she died in the Blight? Or she ran away with another man—or woman? Or did you leave her, and now you regret it?”

                Elissa looked up from her investigation as she heard Nathaniel’s breath shake when he exhaled loudly again. His voice was low and threatening. “I said, don’t go there,” he warned the mage.

                “Oghren,” said Anders, ignoring Nathaniel’s reaction again, “stop helping the Commander for a second. What do you think about this?”

                “I really don’t care,” the dwarf replied with a shrug, not looking up from a blood stain he was examining.

                “What? But this is the most exciting thing I’ve managed to pry out of the guy in the weeks he’s been with us! He’s so boring normally. What about you, boss? What do you think?”

                Elissa took a stern tone. “I think that’s enough, Anders.”

                “Come on! Not you too! Don’t you think this is—”

                “I said enough,” she warned, getting to her feet. “Stop prying where your nose isn’t meant to be.” She shot him a look as he parted his lips to protest, silencing him. “We are not here to interrogate each other on personal matters. Stop messing about and make yourself useful.”

                Oghren whispered, “Take a hint, mage.”

                Anders sighed. “You are such a party pooper sometimes, commander, you know that?” He stormed off in a huff, shaking his head.

                Elissa looked over at Nathaniel to see his eyes closed and breathing slowly. She knew better than to ask if he was okay—he clearly wasn’t. I used to call him Nate, she remembered, back when we were friends before the Blight. She hadn’t spoken to him properly since the argument in her study almost a week ago. Not knowing how or when to approach him, to speak to him about what they had discussed…or rather shouted at each other. Instead, she continued her investigation, leaving him be.

                After a few minutes of awkward silence, Anders jogged back over to the group. “Commander, I found something you should see.” From the lack of usual sarcasm in his tone, Elissa perked up at his words, following him out of the camp. They travelled along a slope, down past the camp, and further into the forest to find a man wailing in pain on his back in the centre of a small makeshift camp beneath a tree, his skin mottled and his eyes glazed over.

                “Don’t look!” the man shouted as they drew close. His silver armour was splattered in black ichor and red blood. “Don’t look at me!”

                Elissa knelt down before him. “I don’t think you should get too close,” said Nathaniel. “He looks…ill.”

                “He has the Blight,” she told him. “It cannot harm us Wardens.” She spoke to the man in a calm and soothing voice. “Who are you?”

                “Olaf, my name,” he answered, his voice hoarse and scratchy. “Came with friends to…to drive away the elf, but…the darkspawn were too quick. We were ripped apart. Biting claws and teeth from the darkness. Then I woke…flesh and bone and gristle under me…around me…everyone dead.” He trembled. “Dead soft meat melting into the ground. I crawled away, came here. Can’t stand to see it.”

                “He’s deranged,” said Nathaniel, recoiling away from him.

                “Did you kill the elves?” Elissa asked.

                “No,” the man replied. “Darkspawn came first. They slaughtered us, took our steel, brought it to the elven camp. Tricked us. Tricked the elf. Now she thinks we are to blame. Hunts all in her rage! While they watch.”

                Anders spluttered. “So, all these people died over a misunderstanding? That’s horrible. We have to stop her, boss. Tell her she’s wrong! Do you think she’s back at her camp? We could try looking for her there.”

                “The dark ones are curious about you too,” said the man, pointing up at Elissa. “They watch you as well as her. Can you feel them?”

                Elissa could feel them. She had felt a strange tingling ever since she had stepped foot inside the forest. She had assumed it had been the magic of the forest, or perhaps lingering darkspawn in the area, but the feeling had never faded, meaning it was possible that darkspawn were following them. She kept her cool, showing no sign of worry, but made a silent signal with her fingers to the wardens behind her back to arm themselves. “Do you know anything about the elf’s sister?” she asked instead.

                “Sister? I have a sister! Do I? Elf’s sister… No, we did not take her. Probably dead, or eaten.”

                Elissa chewed the inside of her cheek in thought. He was beginning to slur on his words, his mind clouded. “This disease will kill you, you know,” she told him honestly.

                The man laughed, a dribble of blood escaping his cracked lips. “I’m already dead. Am already gone. M-Make…make it end, please?”

                Elissa got to her feet. Her mind whizzed with thoughts of how to save this man, but there was nothing she could do. He was too far gone to conscript him into the Wardens. By the time they got him back to Vigil’s Keep, he would be changed, or dead. There was no other choice. She pulled a dagger from her back-harness. “Maker have mercy on you,” she said, and thrust the blade into his chest. His eyes widened from the impact, but his face melted into a smile as the light faded from his eyes.

                Elissa pulled her blade free once he had passed, wiped it clean on the grass, and placed it back in her harness, her shoulders heavy. “Let’s—” She stopped, the tingling in her body growing louder. “I feel darkspawn.”

                “So that’s what that weird feeling is,” said Oghren. “I thought I really needed a piss or something.”

                Elissa would have scolded him, but a rusty arrow flew towards her head, forcing her to dive out of the way. As the arrow thudded into a tree behind her, a small hoard of darkspawn jumped out of the bushes around them. They launched into combat with weapons drawn, making short work of the darkspawn. Nathaniel speared them through the chest with his arrows, Anders blasted them back with his magic, and Elissa and Oghren slayed them with her daggers and his axe.

                Once all the darkspawn were slain, they sheathed their weapons and darted back to the camp in search of the elf. They ran back up the slope and through the trees, but a glimpse of movement made Elissa skid to a halt, Oghren and Nathaniel slamming into the back of her. The blond elf stood high up on a ridge, her face twisted with anger.

                “Why are you still here?” she yelled, throwing her hands in the air. “I told you to stay away from me! I warned you, this place is not for you!”

                Seeing the look of pure rage on her face, Elissa knew there would be no point in trying to reason with her, so instead she blurted, “The humans didn’t kidnap your sister!”

                The elf snorted. “I know a human crime when I see it. I’ve experienced more than enough of them. You will pay for repeating their lies!” Her hands glowed with magic, and two of the trees beside them jumped to life.

                “Oh great,” said Anders, “more Sylvans.”

                The elf disappeared in a tangle of roots and sprinted up the hill away from them, leaving them alone with the crazed trees. Elissa remembered that they were weak from fire, so had Anders burn them into ash. It was painful to see such creatures destroyed, but the elf had left them no choice. With haste Elissa chased the elf up the hill and back towards the campsite, her party hot on her heels.

                The elf was stood before three mounds of earth covered in stones at the edge of the camp that looked like graves, hunched over as she caught her breath. “Y-You will never…take me alive!” she yelled.

                Elissa raised her hand as her party caught up, ready to charge in with weapons drawn. “We’re not going to kill you,” she said calmly.

                The elf snarled. “I will not go with you to some Shemlen magistrate! I won’t bow to their rules!”

                Elissa put her hands up. “I just wish to talk, truly. The humans were not to blame for what happened here.”

                “You expect me to believe that? What of the weapons, and my sister’s disappearance?”

                “The humans aren’t responsible because the darkspawn killed them.”

                The elf shook her head. “I should never have come here in the first place. If they had just left us alone, all of this would never have happened.” She finally looked away from the graves and faced Elissa. “If it wasn’t the humans that killed my people and took Seranni, are you saying the darkspawn did it?”

                Nathaniel stepped forward with something twinkling in his hand. “I found this trinket on a darkspawn,” he said, and threw it over to the elf.

                She caught it, examining it in her hands. Her voice became soft. “This is Seranni’s…she would never willingly part with it. Our mother gave it to her before she died. Why would the darkspawn do this?”

                “I don’t know,” Elissa replied honestly, “but I’m going to find out.”

                The elf’s eyes lit up. “You have no reason to trust me, but let me come with you?”

                Anders snorted. “After you killed all those people and attacked us?”

                “I fell for the darkspawn’s deception! I took lives, this is true, but I see now that this was a mistake. I swear to you that when I get Seranni back, I will leave this place for good.”

                Elissa nodded. “Okay, you can come with us.”

                Oghren groaned. “Great, another twitchy magic sort. Just what we need.”

                The elf stepped forward and held out her hand. “My name is Velanna…if you care for such things.” Elissa shook her hand. “Do you know where the darkspawn might dwell?”

                “Tunnels, most likely,” she answered.

                “There’s an abandoned mine some ways to the North of here. Tunnels run far into the earth. We will likely find the darkspawn there.”

                “Right,” said Elissa, taking charge, “then that’s where we’ll go.”

                Anders made a noise with his throat. “Uh, excuse me?” he said, waving his hand in front of her face. “We already have a mage in this party. We don’t need two.”

                Elissa smirked. “You’re right. That’s why you’ll keep watch outside.”

                Anders spluttered. “What? I’m not a guard dog!”

                “That’s what you get for being troublesome whilst on a mission,” she replied, and noticed Nathaniel’s mouth twitch into a tiny smile. “Now, let’s head there before any more darkspawn try to ambush us.”